Brooks Stevens’ Distinctive Sky Top Cars

The SkyTop observation cars for the Olympian Hiawatha have been fittingly described as among “the most distinctive cars ever built.” I say “among” because, at first glance, the six Olympian cars resemble four observation cars built for the Twin Cities Hiawatha.

This image, which one photo caption says is from 1959, shows the interior of a Twin Cities SkyTop car. The interior of an Olympian SkyTop car would have similar, though a little larger. The man in the center resembles, and may have been, Brooks Stevens.

The main difference (aside from the fact that the Twin Cities cars were built in the Milwaukee shops and the Oly cars were built by Pullman) is that the Olympian cars contain eight double bedrooms while the Twin Cities cars have one drawing room and 24 parlor seats.


Top: The SkyTop car for the Twin Cities Hiawatha. Bottom: The SkyTop car for the Olympian Hiawatha. Click either image for a larger view.

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Erie-Builts Haul the Olympian Hi

Rather than buy E units from General Motors or similar PAs from Alco, the Milwaukee elected to pull the Olympian Hiawatha with locomotives made by Fairbanks-Morse, a newcomer to the locomotive business. Fairbanks-Morse dated back to the early nineteenth century, when it made windmills and other industrial products. But its staple was scales, which it exported all over the world. By 1900, Fairbanks-Morse was considered the best-known brand name in the world for the widespread use of its scales.

Click image for a larger view.

In the 1890s, the company started experimenting with internal combustion engines, and by the 1930s it was making some of the most reliable Diesels in the world. Many of its engines had opposed pistons, which means each cylinder had two pistons in it, each turning separate crank shafts. As a result, a single, 10-cylinder (20 piston) engine could be more powerful than a General Motors V-16 engine. The United States Navy, which had purchased a number of General Motors’ 201-A engines for its submarines in the 1930s, ended up replacing them with more reliable Fairbanks-Morse engines during the war years.

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The Olympian Hiawatha

On the heels of the streamlined Empire Builder, the Milwaukee Road introduced the Olympian Hiawatha to its Seattle-Chicago run on June 29, 1947. Yet only some of the cars were streamlined on that date, as the Milwaukee had not yet taken delivery of the entire train. Unusually, for the railroad, it had elected to have the train built by Pullman instead of in its own shops as was the case for the pre-war Hiawathas.

Click to download an 18.6-MB PDF of this 20-page brochure about the Olympian Hiawatha.

This brochure, which is dated May, 1947, is filled with images of what the train would be like when it was finally delivered in full, which would not be until January, 1949. Unlike the Great Northern, the Milwaukee splurged on full four-color pictures of its train. Yet, after seeing the bright, Hudson-Bay-blanket colors of the Empire Builder lounges, the wood-tones and institutional greens illustrated in the Olympian Hiawatha brochure seem dated.

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The City of San Francisco Goes Via Milwaukee

On October 30, 1955, the Union Pacific abruptly shifted its passenger trains from the Chicago & North Western to the Milwaukee Road for the portion of the trip between Omaha and Chicago. According to Rank & Kratville’s heavy tome on Union Pacific Streamliners, at the end of 1954, the North Western owed Union Pacific more than $1 million due to equalization agreements for the use of cars on the various City trains. When the UP asked the C&NW to pay up, the latter railroad indicated a reluctance to pay and less-than-enthusiastic feelings about continuing the partnership.

Click to download a 2.5-MB PDF of this four-page brochure.

So the Union Pacific switched to the Milwaukee Road, and agreed to forgive the debt owed to it by the C&NW. This brochure, dated November, 1955, was obviously issued to recognize this change. Note that the nose of the E6 locomotive (SF-4), which (as shown below) was previously marked with the logos of all three railroads that operated the train (C&NW, UP, SP), is blank, probably airbrushed out by a graphics artist. Naturally, the photo shows the train on the causeway across the Great Salt Lake.

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Train of Destiny

The City of San Francisco was in national headlines twice, once just before the war and once a few years after. Both events took place on Southern Pacific tracks. In the first instance, the train was in a spectacular wreck that killed 24 people, most of them dining car workers who were preparing the car for breakfast the next morning.

The official report on the August 12, 1939 disaster concluded it resulted from sabotage, which set a war-jittery nation’s nerves on edge. However, some people insisted that it was simply a case of the train going too fast, implying that the railroad made up the sabotage claim in order to absolve itself of liability. In any case, no saboteurs were ever found and the railroad’s offer of a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the vandals apparently still stands.

Click image to download a PDF of a two-page article from the August 28, 1939 Life magazine about the 1939 wreck.

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City of San Francisco Menus

Union Pacific streamliners had an incredible variety of menus, most of which had a large photo of some sight along the rail line. This photo covered most of the front cover and wrapped around to about half the back cover. Below the photo on the front cover was the name of the train, while the back also had a three- or four-paragraph description of the photo and some small sketches that also evoked sights along the rail route.

Click to download a 1.8-MB PDF of this complete menu.

I have menus with more than 50 different photos, and I’m sure I haven’t exhausted the possibilities. For the City of Portland and City of Los Angeles, the railroad didn’t hesitate to use photos of sights that were on the route of another train in its system. But all of the City of San Francisco menus I’ve collected feature photos of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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City of San Francisco Goes Daily

The Pere Marquette and Empire Builder may have been the first brand-new streamliners after the war, but the Union Pacific already had streamliners throughout its system. Without buying any new equipment, it (with the help of partners Southern Pacific and Chicago & North Western) managed to scrounge together enough cars to increase the frequency of its City of San Francisco from twice a week to three times a week on October 1, 1946.

At least, the above ad, which says “Now! Three Times a Week,” is dated October 1st. Click the image to download a .8-MB PDF of this mailer, which the Southern Pacific sent to travel agents and other people who might be able to promote the train.

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Eating on the Empire Builder

After introducing the streamlined Empire Builder, the train’s menus featured paintings by Charles Russell, the cowboy artist who once lived in Great Falls on the Great Northern line. This is a breakfast menu offering meals from $1.00 to $1.35 (about $9.30 to $12.50 in today’s money).

Click image to download a 1.9-MB PDF of the front and back of this 1948 menu.

The menu cover features a Russell painting called the Buffalo Hunt, and the back of the menu notes that “a larger reproduction of the painting appears in the lounge-observation car of this train.” I have several other Russell menus for the Western Star that I’ll post when I get to that train, and they make the same claim. Since photos indicate that there was only one Russell painting in each observation car, this suggests that the railroad made the effort to supply each dining car with menus that matched the paintings in the observation car that happened to be on the same train.

Great Northern menus of the 1930s featured portraits of Blackfoot Indians that were painted by Winold Reiss specifically for the menus, while some menus from the 1940s featured photos of Glacier National Park. I’ll post some of these menus when I cover the pre-streamlined Empire Builder.

Soap Leaves

Here is a curious item, and not just because “soap leaves” have been replaced in modern life by wet wipes.

Click the image to download a PDF of the front and back of this little packet of soap leaves.

The image of the locomotive on the cover of the soap leaves has obviously been taken from the publicity photo of the locomotive in its as-delivered paint scheme. The angle is exactly the same, and the image of the engineer in the window and the shadows in the top headlight are unmistakable.

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On Board the Empire Builder

Passengers in the observation lounge car were invited to send letters using stationery decorated with this colorful letterhead.

Click to download a PDF showing the entire first page of this four-page stationery. (The other three pages are blank.)

In addition to the postcard shown in a previous post, the railroad also happily gave out other postcards advertising its train.

This one shows the Empire Builder between Seattle and Everett along the Puget Sound.

In this one, the train is further east, probably along the Columbia River in Washington state.