The Green Diamond

The Illinois Central’s Green Diamond
by Howard Bahr

In the decades following the Great War, American culture shook itself out of the Nineteenth Century and woke to fresh ideas and new possibilities. Youth, having liberated Europe and ended war forever, had a voice for the first time in our history. Cynicism and joi de vivre found ways to cohabit, and under their common roof, Youth created a new way of living. Jazz was the soundtrack. Flappers in short skirts, long beads swinging, danced the Charleston, the Fox Trot, the Shimmy: girls smoked cigarettes and drank gin in public and were picked up from Mama’s house by sheiks in fast cars. The Imagists’ admonition–“Make it new!”–resonated everywhere.

Downtown, the staid dignity of the Chicago School gave way to soaring silver skyscrapers that transformed city skylines. In the suburbs, new houses traded a classical vocabulary for the sleek lines, portholes, and minimalist décor of the Moderne. Aluminum and glass replaced busy fretwork; cluttered, over-stuffed parlors vanished, and porches disappeared; tall Lombardy poplars, nature’s answer to Arts Decoratif, graced the landscaping. Even everyday objects like radios, toasters, pencil sharpeners, vases, clocks, mirrors, and telephones took on new forms in the up-to-date household. The automobile industry, ever alert to the public’s whims, abandoned the boxy bodies and spoked wheels inherited from horse-drawn carriages and began to experiment with streamlining, a movement that culminated in the startling 1936 Chrysler Airflow.

When that car and others like it appeared on showroom floors, they represented not only a revolution in style, but in movement as well. Newly-paved highways beckoned, and the motorcar, liberated from Sunday drives and trips to the park, was recast as a ship of dreams. The world was opened up in an unprecedented way: as Dinah Shore would sing in 1953, “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet! America is asking you to call!” Travelers, once bound to the railroads, could now set their own schedules, carry as much baggage as they wanted (no charge!), and rest in the friendly motor hotels springing up in the wilderness.

American railroad companies looked on this newfound Freedom of the Road with misgivings. Railroads had bullied steamboats off the inland rivers, now, in their turn, they were threatened by the automobile. Passenger revenue was still high, but the Detroit competition was available, cheap, and attractive to the public. In 1882, when the railroads were at the height of their tyrannical power, Commodore Vanderbilt of the New York Central could proclaim, in an unguarded moment, “The public be damned!” Needless to say, by the mid-1930s, this sentiment was no longer viable.

To meet this challenge, railroad engineering and PR departments tapped into the Moderne craze and created the Streamliner: a first-class, air-conditioned train with sleek aluminum coaches, specially assigned engines, and a color scheme that ran from the locomotive pilot to the end of the observation car. Design luminaries like Henry Dreyfuss and Raymond Loewy brought steam locomotives into the realm of high art: when the New York Central’s Twentieth Century Limited (Dreyfuss) and the Pennsylvania’s Broadway Limited (Loewy) raced each other eastbound out of Chicago on parallel tracks, they represented a pinnacle of design unequaled for American industry.

Another innovation was the articulated “trainset,” the railroads’ first great experiment with diesel-electric power. Articulation meant that the power car” (that is, the locomotive) and all the coaches shared wheel trucks and were permanently coupled together, save when they went to the shops for maintenance. Trainsets were short–five or six cars in the consist–ran on tight schedules, and were well-appointed. The CB&Q fielded several silver, shovel-nosed Zephyrs. The UP and C&NW ran a joint City of Denver, the Santa Fe’s Chicagoan/Kansas moderne aesthetic.

 The schedule of the Green Diamond was ideally suited for businessmen traveling between the great cities of St. Louis and Chicago, with a stop at Springfield, Illinois’ capitol. Northbound, the train departed St. Louis at 8:55 A.M. and arrived in Chicago five hours later. Southbound departure from Chicago was at the close of the business day, 5:00 P.M., with a St. Louis arrival at 9:55 P.M. Along the way, passengers enjoyed such amenities as air-conditioning, a radio in every car, and excellent dining (see Jesse Yancy’s article below). In addition, the train carried a stewardess trained in dictation, and a registered nurse for the hangovers and heart attacks common among Capitalists in the Great Depression years.

The Green Diamond must have been quite a sight as she glided through the cornfields on a summer’s day, or flashed her green against the snow of winter. People accustomed to a steam engine’s mournful whistle no doubt looked up when #121 blatted her air horn at grade crossings: perhaps they heard in it the sound of the Future, but probably not. Locomotives would always and evermore be driven by steam, just as the Great War had ended all wars, and drugstores would always sell Paregoric.

In the end, the very success of the Green Diamond led to her demise. The St. LouisSpringfield-Chicago schedule proved so popular that passenger traffic began to exceed the limited capacity of the trainset, which could not accommodate the addition of extra cars during a surge of ridership. In 1947, eleven years after her glorious debut, IC #121 and her articulated companions were replaced by conventional, more practical diesel locomotives and coaches. The train’s name and schedule remained, but the moderne novelty was gone forever from the Land of Lincoln.

The final chapter of the trainset’s story began at the Illinois Central’s Paducah shops, where she was given an overhaul. When she emerged, she was freshly-painted in the same two-tone green, but the Green Diamond banner had been erased from her sides. Train crews, doubtless Bemused by the assignment, took her across the various divisions to Cairo, Memphis, and at last to her new home of Jackson, Mississippi. Why she was sent there instead of somewhere else is lost to history, but for the next three years–until she was sold for scrap–she traveled the Louisiana Division between Jackson and New Orleans. Now called the Miss-Lou, her timecard schedule was almost identical to that of the Green Diamond, and she once again provided the reliable, courteous service for which the Main Line of Mid-America was famous. The Miss-Lou moniker derived, of course, from the states through which she traveled, but, as Yancy explains below, it was by another name that she entered the folklore of the Deep South.

We are given some things in life–the Iris, for example, or a young girl’s face–that seem the more beautiful because we know their flowering will not last. We treasure less, perhaps, those things we foolishly believe will last forever. So it was with the great passenger trains that once flowed majestically across the Republic: colorful carriers of Dream and Promise in a time when pride was still part of the national character and anything was possible. They are vanished now, every one scattered across the trash-heaps of memory, and few remain who remember them at all. They will not come again; that they once passed among us is testimony to what we had, and to what we can never have again.

Dining on the Green Diamond
by Jesse Yancy

In 1867, George Pullman introduced his first railroad “hotel car,” the President, a converted sleeper equipped with limited dining facilities. In 1868, Pullman built his next all-dining car, which he named the Delmonico after the famous New York restaurant. The Delmonico was placed in service on the Chicago & Alton Railroad between Chicago and Springfield, Ill. Meals were the lofty price of one dollar.

The 1940s and 1950s were the golden age of train travel and the pinnacle of railroad dining car operations. For many passengers, the ambiance of the dining car was the reason they rode the train. The Panama Limited maintained a high level of service until the Amtrak era. It was noted for its first-rate culinary staff and Creole fare in the Vieux Carre-themed dining cars, a service which the Illinois Central marketed heavily. A well-known multi-course meal on the Panama Limited was the Kings Dinner, for about $10; other deluxe, complete meals such as steak or lobster, including wine or cocktail, were priced around $4 to $5. The menu the Super Chief, called the “Train for the Stars” because it was the choice transportation from the East Coast and Chicago to Hollywood, rivaled that served in many five-star restaurants. A “Wake-Up Cup” of coffee was brought to one’s private bedroom each morning, on request, a service exclusive to the Super Chief. The elaborate dinner offerings generally included caviar and other delicacies, cold salads, grilled and sauteéd fish, sirloin steaks and filet mignon, lamb chops, and the like. For discerning palates, elegant champagne dinners were an option.

In that golden age of the itinerant epicure, the Illinois Central touted their schedules with its most famous advertisement stating, “Enjoy the fastest service ever offered and the supreme luxury of America’s smoothest riding train. Air-conditioned…radio in every car… Stewardess… Delicious inexpensive meals as low as: breakfast 25 cents, lunch 35 cents, and dinner 40 cents.”  The ICRR original Green Diamond dining service carried on the railroad’s tradition of fine dining, with every element of complete passenger train service contained in four cars with 200 square feet. With dining seating for only 24, it would take 5 seatings to serve all 120 passengers in the dining space, and that had to be done in the five hour and 10-minute trip. Six serving tray stands were provided in each chair car for use in serving meals at the seats of the patrons, and this helped case the process.

The 22-square feet kitchen was provided with an oil burning range, broiler, warming ovens, urn and steam table. Polished stainless steel was used for the table tops, sinks, chipped ice wells, facings of refrigerators, range, work tables and lower lockers. The interior linings of cold boxes, refrigerator compartments, racks, etc. were also of stainless steel. Dry ice refrigeration, automatically controlled, was used in the large refrigerator, cold boxes, and ice cream cabinet. The kitchen was provided with a serving bay open on three sided to facilitate serving meals. Ornamental panels of inlaid Formica closed off these openings when the kitchen is not in use. An annunciator for waiter service was provided with push buttons conveniently located in the diner-observation car and at the dining section in the chair car.

The Green Diamond’s menu offered an impressive variety for what amounted to a glorified commuter train. Both the a la carte menu and the table d’hote included broiled codfish with anchovy sauce, lamb chops with spiced crabapple, pork tenderloin with yams, chicken a la king, and New Orleans-style pan-fried oysters served with succotash, French-fried potatoes, and Brussels sprouts. Lettuce and fruit salads, cold and hot soups, and freshly baked pie rounded out the menu. The bar offered cocktails, beers, and wines, mixed drinks, sodas (Seven Up and Coca Cola), and a selection of assorted cigars (5, 10, and 15 cents).

When the Green Diamond began her final runs as the Miss-Lou (MISSissippi-LOUisiana) between Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, she left Jackson at 6:20 AM, arriving in New Orleans at 10:20 AM; the return journey left at 6:20 PM and arrived in Jackson at 10:20 PM. This articulated version of the original trainset probably offered little more to eat than cold sandwiches and sodas. Along rails running among the small farms and homesteads of south Mississippi, the farmers along its route noted the green train’s resemblance to an unwelcome denizen of their vegetable gardens, and before long became affectionately known the Tomato Worm. The train was finally retired on August 8, 1950, and sold for scrap.

Valley of Dry Bones: A Meditation on Change by Howard Bahr

In 1951, author S. Skip Farrington, Jr., bestirred himself to see how America’s railroads were faring in the years following World War Two. What he found was a thriving industry open to innovation and dedicated to customer service. In his classic Railroading the Modern Way (Coward-McCann, 1951), Farrington extolled the virtues of the great companies whose heralds, maps, lists of officers, and intricate schedules fattened The Official Guide to the Railways, that indispensable yearly publication, the size of a Chicago phone book, that every ticket clerk and agent in the Republic consulted for the routing of freight and passengers. Farrington raised hymns to powerful diesel locomotives, all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), cushion couplings, centralized traffic control, end-to-end radio communication, and luxurious new passenger equipment. Reading Farrington’s work now, one is struck by his implicit conclusion: everything about the railroad was going to stay the same, but it would all be faster, safer, and shinier than ever before. The traveling public could rejoice, and small shippers could rub their hands in glee.

Two decades later, Farrington’s cheery prophecy had collapsed like a washed-out trestle. Those of us who were railroading in those twilight days witnessed changes in the industry far more radical than anything Farrington could have imagined in the money-green glow of the ‘Fifties. From our decrepit yard offices, grimy locomotive cabs, and generic all-steel cabooses (with electric lighting!), we watched as the old resounding road names celebrated in Farrington’s book were gobbled up by mergers. We saw the sale or abandonment of entire districts, the consolidation of agencies, the ruthless encroachment of job-killing technology, and the surgical excision of labor-intensive commodities like perishable fruit and passengers. The government got involved, then it got uninvolved, and then–well, who knows? Traffic agents like my old man– those stalwart, hard-drinking, fiercely loyal drummers who pounded the pavements in search of business–became as anachronistic as link-and-pin couplers and finally disappeared altogether, their once-busy offices abandoned or used for storage.

Railroads, it seemed, had found other interests. Our beloved Illinois Central, for example–once the Main Line of Mid-America–yearned for greater profits, so it redefined itself as Illinois Central Industries and wrapped its tentacles around Pepsi Cola and Whitman Candies and left the now-unprofitable railroad property to wither on the vine. By the mid-Seventies, the Official Guide had shrunk to the size of an L.L. Bean catalog. On our Gulfport District, the maximum main line speed of freight trains had been reduced to ten miles an hour over crumbling lightweight 1930s rail affixed to ties that could be pulled apart in the hand. Three-man crews, with radios that rarely worked, risked their lives trying to switch behemoth tank cars and piggyback flats in yards designed in the 1890s. Almost overnight, the old craft became unrecognizable to persons like myself, who remembered footboards and forty-foot cars and coal-oil switch targets, who had penciled switch lists in the rain, who had passed lantern- and hand signals along a cut of cars and waved at pretty girls from the cupola of a caboose or the cab window of a growling GP-9.

But surely some revelation was at hand. Surely the Second Coming was at hand. The new railroad model, slouching toward solvency with relentless efficiency, was a desperate attempt to survive in a world that had swiftly left Farrington’s ideal behind.

In due season–another ten years perhaps–the railroads accomplished their vision and their survival. The result, as John R. Stilgoe so beautifully illustrates in Train Time (U of Virginia P, 2007), was a tectonic shift in the American industrial landscape. Stilgoe’s book, in perfect counterpoint to Farrington’s, demonstrates how, in less than a half-century, the old clanking, colorful, individualistic railroad companies of folklore and romance vanished like a dream, and in their place rose a new paradigm: the single trunk line, a silvery welded-rail turnpike over which computer-controlled trains with two-man crews hauled inter-modals or bulk commodities. Yard switching became a matter of mere pulling and shoving, and along the main line, switching was minimal or nonexistent. Depots were sold for restaurants or gift shops, freight houses were demolished, and only the most reluctant accommodation was made for Amtrak passenger trains.

Out of the chaos, finally, rose a single indisputable Gibraltar of fact: for the Post-Modern age, no better method exists for the transportation of bulk commodities than a well-maintained, high-speed, computer-controlled, heavy-rail corridor over which fuel-efficient motive power hauls the goods. American mega-railroads have achieved their goal, and American mega-business–not to mention highways and Interstates choked with eighteen-wheelers–will be the better for it.

Like most revolutions, however, that which I have just described was not without its cost. A way of life disappeared, and with it the loyalty men and women felt for the companies that had sustained them, often for generations. Countless jobs were abolished as shops and yards “modernized,” trains were cut off, and maintenance and damage control were hired out to private companies. Small shippers found they were no longer courted; indeed, they were ignored, even bypassed, as the railroad companies pulled up branch lines and spur tracks. Train crews no longer learned on the job, but attended centralized schools like truck drivers or heavy-equipment operators. People, especially poor ones, who still found it expedient to travel by rail were shuffled off to poor old Amtrak, for years the red-headed stepchild of the new empire.

Today, railroads have all but disappeared from the American imagination, where they once held center stage. Through four years of Naval service, I was sustained by the idea that, when I was released at last, I could go and be a railroad brakeman–somewhere, anywhere. I would walk the tops gaily and ride the caboose; I might even get to wear the uniform of a passenger trainman. I could do it for as long as I wanted, for the railroads, of course, would never change, a prodigious delusion as it turned out. In latter years, I have met not a single young person whose ambition was to work for the railroad.

When the family SUV is inconveniently blocked at a grade crossing–OMG! Josh will be late for soccer practice!–or when a derailed ninety-foot tank car of ammonia exterminates a congregation, then the citizens pay attention, a little. Otherwise, most people are only dimly aware of the big, graffiti-plastered objects that lumber past on the edge of their vision. In an age when, for example, the Canadian National operates in Mississippi and Louisiana, the public can hardly be blamed for losing their sense of regional affiliation. Crewpersons, buttoned up tight in their air-conditioned locomotive cabs, do not wave much anymore, and the caboose, the public’s most cherished railroad icon, has long been replaced by FRED, the Federal Rear End Device. FRED is an air-pressure gauge with a blinking red light fixed to the last knuckle of the last car. FRED does not wave, he cares nothing for pretty girls, and trains pass like sentences without punctuation, gliding on their way toward destinations no one can name.

With the exception of amateur rail enthusiasts, most people born after 1970–even most contemporary railroad persons, I expect–have little sense or patience for what the old craft meant, or how important it was in the daily life of generations. My students do not know what a caboose is. They have never heard of the Panama Limited or the Pan American. They think The City of New Orleans is a corny old song their grandparents listened to. This is our collective consciousness now. It is where we need to be if we are to have a viable rail system in the context of the Twenty-First Century. A hard truth, perhaps, but, as old Major R.K. Cross used to say, the truth is a stubborn thing.

And yet. And yet. Some ghosts are hard to shrive from blood memory, and not for nothing do people have a sense of something lost, though they may no longer be able to articulate just what the loss involves. When a person, by chance meeting, discovers that I was once a railroad man, he or she will more often than not voice a familiar lament. “Isn’t it a shame,” the person will say, “that we let our railroads go.” Then, inevitably, he will press on to sing of the supposed glories of European systems, or how, as a child, he rode to grandma’s house on the beautiful Sunset Limited and drank from Waterford crystal in the dining car as the scenery reeled past like illustrations on an SP calendar. I never know how to answer the complaint, nor how to respond to the memoir, so I nod my head and remain silent, wondering if the person understands what he is saying. He is unaware, I think, that the guilty collective pronoun included the railroads themselves. He forgets, perhaps, that the complexities of modern life offer no alternative. He forgets, most of all, that one can no longer expect Waterford crystal in a culture that has agreed unanimously on the Styrofoam cup.

Nostalgia has little virtue save for them who have earned it. In the end, Nostalgia, and its consort Romance, are an insult to the old ones who spent half their lives in cheap hotels; who saw their comrades cut in half or mangled under the wheels; who felt the loneliness and isolation of flagging behind in a ghostly fog; who understood that a steam engine, for all the mournful poignancy of its whistle, was a hard taskmaster and a deadly one. Nostalgia and Romance conceal, and therefore dishonor, the fact that old-time railroading was a real bitch, a dangerous and lonely and demanding craft, and those who followed it, especially in train or engine service, dwelt always on the edge of catastrophe. To paraphrase my old friend Frank Smith, a switch engine foreman of thirty years service, if you got home after the job without having killed someone or turned something over, your day was a success.

And yet, for those of us who lived the old craft, no coldly efficient, high-speed computer game can replace it. Perhaps too much happened for too many years out there in the night when the old trains ran. There was too much death, too much honor and meanness, too much tragedy and glory and fun, and too many souls were moved by the distant cry of a locomotive–steam whistle or diesel horn, no matter–for it all to be erased by corporate ukase. Something of the old life remains, something deeply human and therefore messy and dramatic, to haunt the memory of the Race.

Once, Frank Smith and I were talking to a gentleman who had worked his whole life on the now-vanished Columbus and Greenville Railroad. Beside him sat his wife, a gentle, silver-haired lady whose eyes glowed with the knowledge that she and this old rascal had been married sixty-one years and had made it work. The old man patted her knee. “Ever’ time I’d leave on the job,” he said, “my wife would make me a bucket of fried chicken. I used to throw the bones right out the cab window, a lot of bones all down the main line, years and years.” He thought a moment, then smiled. “Lord,” he said, “wouldn’t it be funny if them bones was to rise again.”

Funny, indeed, and an irresistible image: hundreds of white leghorns rising from the dust, gazing about, puzzling how in the world they ever got there, all wandering forlorn along the weed-choked iron of the old C&G. Meanwhile, all across the Republic, outside the trembling windowpanes of restored depots and freight house museums, the big anonymous trains roll on, the cone of their headlights pointed toward tomorrow.