The B&O Columbian

On May 5, 1949–just 45 days after the California Zephyr‘s inaugural run–the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad introduced the first dome cars in regular service east of Chicago. The cars, which the B&O called “strata-domes,” were part of the Columbian, an all-coach train that went from New York to Chicago via Washington, DC, Pittsburgh, and Akron, Ohio.

This highly stylized photo shows one of the B&O’s first two domes, “Sky Dome.” The other dome was named “High Dome.” Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

Starting in 1931, the Columbian was the nation’s first air-conditioned train, and it went between Washington and New York (actually, Jersey City, where passengers caught a ferry to New York City). But in 1941, the B&O extended it to Chicago, initially as a day train but later scheduled it to follow the all-Pullman Capitol Limited by a few minutes. In the Washington-Chicago market, the two trains were highly competitive with the Pennsylvania’s Liberty Limited, actually beating that train’s time by about a half an hour. However, the B&O trains were not at all competitive with Pennsylvania or New York Central trains in the New York-Chicago market, and in 1958 the B&O dropped that portion–which was ironic considering that the Columbian started out exclusively serving that route.

Passengers in this artist’s representation of the B&O Strata-Domes enjoy views through large, picture-window-sized panes of glass. The front panel also had a speedometer, altimeter, barometer, and clock. Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

After the war, the B&O ordered two new, eight-car streamlined trains from Pullman, which would ultimately be the only complete trains the railroad would buy in the postwar period. Each train consisted of a baggage-dorm-coffee-shop car with 24 non-revenue seats; four 56-seat coaches, the dome car with 42 revenue seats downstairs and 24 non-revenue seats upstairs, a 38-seat diner, and a round-tailed tavern-lounge-observation car with 53 non-revenue seats. The B&O would be the only railroad ever to offer dome cars in the Chicago-Washington-New York market.

Compared to the artist’s view above, the side windows in the real domes were little bigger than peep holes between posts that blocked eye level for too many people.

By the time the new Columbian had arrived, the Budd Company had built more than 40 dome cars for the various zephyr trains, while Pullman had built only four for the Train of Tomorrow. Because of low clearances in some sections of the east, the Columbian domes were seven inches shorter than the Budd-built Zephyr domes and three inches shorter than the Train of Tomorrow domes. Like the Train of Tomorrow, the panes of glass were all flat, rather than curved. This greatly impaired views from the domes, but even a short dome car was better than none.

Click image for a larger view.

The Columbian dome was unusual if not unique in having two non-revenue lounges beneath the dome. One has eleven seats and seems to be a men’s smoking lounge: it appears to have the only access to the men’s restroom. The other room has six seats, and may be a women’s lounge, although the women’s restroom appears to be accessed directly from the hallway. These lounges weren’t private and were only separated from the hall and each other by a waist-high partition. By comparison, most Budd dome-coaches divided the space beneath the dome into two equal-sized men’s and women’s lounges (with toilets in adjacent rooms) that mainly featured mirrors and sinks, not chairs and ashtrays.

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