The Vista-Dome North Coast Limited

The venerable North Coast Limited–the oldest named train in the Northwest–became a domeliner in August, 1954. More than seven years after the Great Northern introduced the streamlined Empire Builder, the Northern Pacific finally caught up with, and in some ways surpassed, its Northwest rivals, including the Olympian Hiawatha. As was typical of the Northern Pacific, these improvements came incrementally.

AFter 1954, much NP publicity prominently featured both the vista-dome cars and the stewardess-nurse on board every North Coast Limited. Click image to download a 20.7-MB PDF of this 20-page brochure about the train.

On November 16, 1952, the railway had finally speeded up its premiere train to 45-hour schedules comparable to its streamlined competition. At the same time, the Northern Pacific inaugurated the partly streamlined Mainstreeter as a secondary train, roughly comparable to the Western Star, on the 59-hour schedule of the old North Coast Limted.

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The San Francisco Chief

In an effort to compete with the California Zephyr and City of San Francisco, in July, 1954, the Santa Fe inaugurated its San Francisco Chief. In addition to coaches, sleepers, and a diner, each of the six trains included a Budd-built Big Dome, bringing the Santa Fe’s total to 14 full-length domes. In order to provide a crew dorm for 12, these last four domes had a smaller lounge downstairs.

The dome car is about the eighth car back in this photo of the San Francisco Chief in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Click image to download a PDF of this postcard.

A typical consist for the San Francisco Chief included three coaches, a lunch counter car, the Big Dome, a diner, and four sleepers. Unlike the Super Chief and El Capitan, the San Francisco Chief did not have a round-tailed observation car.

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Southern Pacific’s 3/4-Length Domes

The Southern Pacific claimed that most dome cars were too tall to fit through its tunnels. So it designed and built its own dome cars out of older cars it had on hand. Its first car was built from a 1938 Coast Daylight observation car using a dome lattice and windows purchased from the Budd Company. The car started work on the San Joaquin Daylight on June 24, 1954.

SP’s first three-quarter-length dome. Click image for a larger view.

At 15-feet, 2-inches tall, these were the shortest domes built: an inch shorter than the Pullman-built domes for the B&O Columbian; five inches shorter than the Milwaukee Super Domes; and eight inches shorter than most Budd short domes. This can be seen from the small forward- and rear-facing windows of the SP domes.

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Big Domes for the Santa Fe

When Burlington inaugurated its vista-domed Kansas City and American Royal Zephyrs on the Chicago-Kansas City route, the Santa Fe responded by ordering full-length domes for several trains serving the same route. Although Pullman, which manufactured the Milwaukee Super Domes, proposed to make similar cars for the Santa Fe, the railroad turned instead to Budd to build its “Big Domes.”

This advertisement from the November 8, 1954 Life magazine shows passengers craning their necks to see the scenery from the lounge portion of the Big Domes. Click image for a larger view.

In March, 1954, the Santa Fe added one of these domes to each of the six El Capitan all-coach Chicago-LA trains plus one each to a pair of trains that went between Chicago and Oklahoma City. Inaugurated in 1938 (initially between Chicago and Wichita), the northbound train each day was called the Chicagoan while the southbound train was called the Kansas Citian.

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Zephyrs to Kansas City

In October 1952, at a cost of $16 million (about $136 million in today’s money), the Burlington completed construction of a new 49-mile segment of track that saved two hours on its route between Chicago and Kansas City. On February 1, 1953, the railroad celebrated its “Kansas City shortcut” by introducing two new Budd-built vista-dome zephyrs between the two cities: the daytime Kansas City Zephyr and the overnight American Royal Zephyr.

Click image to download a PDF of this postcard advertising the Kansas City and American Royal Zephyrs.

The day train included a dome-lounge-coach, flat-topped coaches, a diner, and a dome-observation car. The overnight train included sleeping cars and a dome-buffet-lounge car. Unlike the round-tail observation cars on previous zephyrs, the observation cars built for the Kansas City Zephyr had blunt ends, making it possible to use them in the middle of a train if needed.

Blunt-end observation car in a Budd advertisement showing the Kansas City Zephyr as it approaches its name-sake city, where it was scheduled to arrive at 8:45 pm.

Super Domes for the Hiawathas

After the Super Chief received its domes on January 29, 1951, no further trains became domeliners until 1952, when domes were added to several minor trains: the Missouri Pacific Texas Eagle and Missouri River Eagle in July; the Wabash City of Kansas City in August; and–using cars rotated off the California Zephyr–the Burlington’s Ak-Sar-Ben Zephyr in December. The next (literally) big news for dome cars came on January 1, 1953, when the Milwaukee Road added the first full-length domes to its Hiawatha trains.

The Milwaukee publicity department liked this illustration so well that it also used it on the company’s 1952 annual report. Click image to download a 13.3-MB PDF of a 12-page brochure about the Super Domes.

According to the August, 1952 issue of The Milwaukee Road Magazine, the railroad held a contest to name the cars, and a Milwaukee Road employee named B. H. Perlick won by suggesting “Super Domes.” The term was certainly appropriate. At 200,000 pounds, the cars were far heavier than the typical 120,000 to 140,000 pound weight of a typical streamlined passenger car. Each car’s wheel sets alone weighed more than 65,000 pounds and were the first six-wheel trucks for a streamlined car. Though three inches shorter than the tallest short-domes that had been built up to that time, the extra three inches in the latter domes was for an air conditioning duct in the ceiling, so Super Dome passengers enjoyed front and back windows that were just as large on those of the tallest Budd-built short domes.

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The Indian Ads

In addition to ads featuring the interior of the train, the Santa Fe ran a long series of brown- or turquoise-colored ads featuring Southwest Indian art. One reason may have been that two-color printing cost less than four-colors, but another would have been to emphasize the exotic nature of travel by train through Navaho and other Indian country.

Click any image for a larger view.

This ad ran in a 1951 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine.

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Advertising the Pleasure Dome

The Santa Fe ran two distinctly different series of ads for the Super Chief and its other trains. One series featured four-color illustrations of scenes on board the train–mostly of some part of the Pleasure Dome. The other series, which I’ll take up tomorrow, featured two-color (black and either brown or turquoise) illustrations usually showing some piece of Southwest Indian art.

Notice the double meaning: “next to the stars” including both the stars in the sky and the movie stars who ride the “train of the stars.” Click on any image for a larger view.

The above ad provides an excellent view of the interior of the dome, and only slightly exaggerates the size of the windows. The ad probably appeared in Saturday Evening Post in 1951. The earliest ads relied on illustrations rather than photos both to make an idealized portrait of the train and because the Pleasure Domes may not yet have been completed when the ads were first laid out.

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The Turquoise Room

Santa Fe publicity promoted the Turquoise Room as “the only private dining room on rails.” After 1954, when Union Pacific included a private dining room in the dome-diners of the City of Los Angeles and City of Portland, this changed to “the first private dining room on rails.”

Souvenir ashtray sold by the Santa Fe. Click for a larger view.

The Turquoise Room was decorated with light woods and a brilliant turquoise mosaic on one wall. By the Amtrak era, this mosaic was simply a framed piece of paper, but for the original car, “Zuni Indians hand-fashioned the sterling silver medallion inlaid with specially selected turquoise.” This medallion was replicated on the room’s menus, in advertising, and on ash trays that the railroad sold to customers for a nominal cost. Turquoise was particularly appropriate to use on the Super Chief as it is not only used for distinctive Southwest Indian jewelry, it is sometimes called the traveler’s stone that is said “to possess healing and protective powers.”

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