Is That a Freight Locomotive?

After the GN had painted one set of Empire Builder equipment Big Sky Blue, it ran a publicity train from Chicago to Seattle. After that, the newly painted cars were mixed in with the orange-and-green cars and it is difficult if not impossible to find any photos of an all-blue Builder or Western Star that are not from that publicity trip. All orange-and-green trains also soon became rare as the GN entered the “rainbow era.”

Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

Just as disturbing, at least to streamliner aficionados, are those boxy SDP-45 locomotives. Not only are they not streamlined, they are much taller than the passenger cars, so they don’t even present a smooth profile. In fact, at 15′-7″, the locomotives are taller than the dome cars, so passengers are lucky that three or four cars usually separate the locomotives from the domes.

The Great Northern Simplifies

Even as the Seattle World’s Fair started up, the Great Northern was simplifying the paint scheme of its Diesel locomotives. Since the railroad had first purchased FT Diesels in 1941, it painted them Pullman green with two large orange stripes, three yellow pin stripes, and a white reflective stripe. The 1947 streamlined Empire Builder color scheme was actually based on what was originally the colors of a freight locomotive.

The simplified scheme applied to an E-7. This is a far cry from the beautiful scheme with forward-facing goats and “Great Northern” in script on the nose in which these units were first delivered.

In May, 1962, however, the Great Northern began painting its Diesels in a simplified scheme that was Pullman green with just one orange stripe and no pinstripes. At the time, the GN estimated that this change saved $27.50 in materials (more than $200 in today’s money) and 16 hours of labor per locomotive. Fortunately, this simplified scheme wasn’t applied to the passenger cars, and the railway must have recognized that it made the locomotives uglier as that scheme is not pictured in any advertisement or brochure that I can find.

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The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair

The Seattle World’s Fair gave passenger service on the Great Northern, and presumably the Northern Pacific, a reprieve not granted to many other railroads. It didn’t hurt that the Milwaukee Road–afraid that its money-losing Olympian Hiawatha would actually make money in 1962 and thereby make it more difficult to gain approval to discontinue the train after that–abandoned passenger service in the Pacific Northwest in 1961.

Notice that the early vision of what the Seattle Monorail would look like was far from the final reality. Click to download a 3.3-MB PDF of this Great Northern brochure advertising the 1962 World’s Fair.

In the winter of 1959-1960, passenger demand on the Empire Builder had fallen so much that the railroad, for the first time, dropped the train’s observation car (which was mostly a sleeping car as it had only eight seats in the observation compartment). While the summer train had four coaches and five sleepers (including the observation car), the winter train had just three each plus, of course, the Ranch car, diner, and full-length dome.

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SP Stands for Simplified Paint

During the 1950s, Southern Pacific passenger trains featured at least six paint schemes, more than any other western railroad, and possibly more than any in the country. These included the orange-and-yellow Daylights; yellow-and-grey City of San Francisco; orange-and-silver Golden State; two-toned grey Lark, Cascade, and San Francisco Overland; stainless steel with red-striped Sunset Limited; and of course Pullman green for various heavyweight trains.

In this case, SP stands for Souvenir Portfolio. Click image to download a 20-MB PDF of this 24-page booklet.

This booklet is undated, but the “bloody nose” paint scheme on the locomotives in the lower left corner of the cover indicates that it was published in or after 1958, when that scheme first replaced both the Black Widow and Daylight colors on SP locomotives. This was the first hint of radical simplification that the railroad was about to undertake.

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Who Shot the Passenger Train?

The failure of the 1956 super lightweight trains left the rail industry discouraged about the future of passenger rail service. While the Burlington, Santa Fe, and a few other railroads persevered, most rail officials felt that it was only a matter of time before railroads would become solely dedicated to freight service.

The April, 1959 issue of Trains magazine contained an incisive, 38-page report titled, “Who Shot the Passenger Train?” Written by the magazine‚Äôs pithy editor, David P. Morgan, the report was the longest and arguably most important article in the publication’s 50-plus-year history. Unfortunately, the report isn’t available on line, but here is a summary of Morgan’s conclusions.

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The Disappearing Observation Car

In lieu of canceling train service (which generally required either federal or state approval), various ways that railroads attempted to save money in the face of declining ridership included:

1. Simplifying exterior paint schemes;
2. Simplifying dining car menus;
3. Reducing the number of cars on a train, such as by eliminating the observation car.

Is a streamliner still a streamliner if it lacks a round-tailed observation car? The wind tunnel tests that first inspired streamlining showed that the shape of the rear was just as important as the shape of the front. (It also revealed that the ideal shape at the front was something like a semi-circle while the ideal shape of the rear was more pointed, like the tear-drop observation cars–just the opposite of what most people expected.)

Like the Silver Meteor, Atlantic Coast Line’s Champion used round-tailed observations for the Miami section and blunt-end observations for the St. Petersburg section that could be used mid-train north of Jacksonville. In the mid-1950s, however, ACL dropped the round-tails as too much trouble.

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Bern Hill Paints for General Motors

If yesterday’s criticism of Leslie Ragan seemed harsh, it was because of my familiarity with posters by Bern Hill, an underrated artist who did 65 paintings for General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division. These paintings were all used as front-cover advertisements in Railway Age between 1951 and 1956, and General Motors issued many of them as posters as well.

Click image to view a 1.2-MB, 2,456×3,660 JPG.

Unlike Ragan, Hill clearly did not work from photos; many of his paintings are from viewpoints that could only be reached by aircraft. As an on-line bio of Hill notes, “In the series created for the Electro-Motive Division, the viewer invariably was positioned at a far distance from the moving train and usually had birds-eye-view perspective that conveyed total silence, physical distance, and compelling fascination with the progress of the human-made sleek object that was cutting across the quiet, panoramic landscapes of mountains, bucolic farm scenes, outskirts of cities and precariously high, steel-girder bridges.”

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Ragan’s Trains

Ragan painted few trains (other than a few background images in his landscapes) for the New York Central before 1939. But his first famous painting, the iconic image of the streamlined Twentieth-Century Limited locomotive designed by Henry Dreyfus, also became his most-famous painting.

Click image to view a 1.0-MB, 2,398×3,659 JPG.

Ragan and, presumably, the New York Central liked this image so well that he repeated it, again and again, in posters and calendars over the next decade. First was the 1938 (or possibly 1939) calendar that used the same locomotive but with an autumn background.

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Ragan Moves to New York

Leslie Darrell Ragan is probably the best-known railroad poster artist of the twentieth century. His only competition would be Grif Teller, who mainly did calendars but also a few posters for the Pennsylvania Railroad, and Howard Fogg, who mainly did paintings that were sometimes reprinted as posters for sale, but not for posting in train stations.

Ragan’s first poster for the New York Central was this 1929 image of Chicago. Click image to download a larger view.

Ragan studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and served as a fighter pilot in World War I. At some point, he moved to New York. It is tempting to think it must have been in 1928, as that was the year of his last poster for the South Shore while his first poster for the New York Central was in 1929, but some on-line bios suggest it was before that time.

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Leslie Ragan Paints for the South Shore

During the 1920s, the interurban Chicago, South Shore, and South Bend Railroad, best known simply as the South Shore, hired numerous poster artists to advertise its trains. Of these, the one who eventually became most famous is Leslie Ragan, whose later work for the New York Central and Budd epitomized the art of mid-twentieth-century rail paintings.

All of these posters except the last one were issued in 1927. Click to download a 2.2-MB, 3,772×5,691 JPG of this poster

Curiously, almost all of the poster artists I’ve featured over the last several days were born in the 1880s, the only exceptions being some of the contributors to the Southern Pacific posters. I suspect the reason for this seeming coincidence is that these artists happened to come of age at a time when printing technologies had advanced enough to make it economically feasible to print large numbers of multi-colored posters.

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