The 20th Century Limited was an express passenger train operated by the New York Central Railroad (NYC) from 1902 to 1967, during which time it would become known as a “National Institution” and advertised as “The Most Famous Train in the World.”
Movie stars were regular passengers on the 20th Century. Kim Novak drew enormous attention from rows of businessmen in the dining car.
The train traveled between Grand Central Terminal (GCT) in New York City and LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, Illinois, along the railroad’s “Water Level Route.”
NORTH BY NORTHWEST
The 20th Century Limited was featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, and James Mason.
- My uncle, Henry W. Grace, was the head set designer at MGM and did the sets for North By Northwest. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the spectacular settings. Knowing my interest in trains, he arranged to have me visit the set at MGM in Culver City.
- My father was also a set designer and I joined him on what was a summer holiday from school walkthrough of the 20th Century Ltd which was built on a sound stage. Everything was perfect in recreating the interiors of the train.
- 2nd Unit filming was done of the trains exteriors in New York and at Grand Central Station.
I was also able to visit the set for James Mason’s house atop Mount Rushmore. It was pure 1950s modernism and spectacular on the MGM soundstage.
The famous 20th Century red carpet is featured in the film. Have you wondered where the much-overused phrase “the red carpet treatment” originated? It all started with the 20th Century Limited.
- It was a “Magic Carpet” high speed overnight Pullman commute between New York and Chicago as pitched in this Time Magazine advertisement.
- The “Century” was an express passenger train operated by the New York Central nightly from New York to Chicago.
- From 1938 until the last run in 1968, passengers walked down a crimson carpet to their waiting cars. This was only done for the departure from New York.
- Stretching from the observation car to the engine – the football field length rug was specially designed for the Century – thus, the “red carpet treatment” was born.
Travel time was less than sixteen hours each way between the two cities during its streamlined years.
The TWENTIETH CENTURY LIMITED
If leaving from New York, you departed at 6 p.m. and arrived the next morning in Chicago at 8:45 a.m. Settling in for the evening, after boarding the Century in downtown Manhattan, you enjoyed cocktails in the observation car, dinner with views of the Hudson, a good night sleep and then with breakfast in bed or in the dining car.
The dress was business formal with no room for baseball caps. Standing in line for security, enduring a long cab ride or enduring hours on the tarmac because of bad weather were not included in your first class Pullman fare.
The glamorous departure aboard New York Central’s 20th Century Limited was equal to a sailing on the Queen Mary, Liberte or United States. This was still the only way to “cross the pond” from New York to Europe into the 1950s and Pullman was the only way to travel overnight by train in America.
- The gateway to the Century’s platform was peopled with passenger agents, Pullman conductors, and NYC conductors. Porters helped passengers to board; waiters stood at attention in the dining car with chefs busily preparing dinner. Menus included caviar, filet mignon, and lobster. Bartenders in the three club cars took orders for Manhattans, Scotch highballs, and very dry Martinis. The train’s crew estimated that 50 percent of the cocktails sold were consumed in private rooms and suites.
- Known as the “train of tycoons,” the Century was similar to a commuter train for elite Chicagoans heading for Manhattan. Household names encompassing meatpacking to department stores – such as Robert R. McCormick, Sewell Avery, Marshall Field, Julius Rosenwald, Philip Armour and Walter Chrysler, Sr. – were mainstays.
- The dining room stewards had notebooks filled with their particular meal and drink requests.
- One of them claimed he knew 75 percent of the passengers and could call 15,000 people by their name.
- He knew that Marshall Field would order one martini but expected to find two in the shaker, Bing Crosby liked his wheat cakes piping hot at 6 a.m., and Robert R. McCormick wanted apple pie a la mode.
Passenger lists were maintained for each “sailing” of the Century. Bob Hope, Bette Davis or Doris Day might be aboard. But the Century was really the train for Chicago’s elite. The Wrigleys, Blairs, Bards, and Fields were “the Century regulars” and occupied the bedroom suites, compartments, and drawing rooms.
- In September 1963, heading to grad school in England, I traveled on the Super Chief from Los Angeles to Chicago and then the 20th Century Limited to New York. Two great trains.
- The Santa Fe was probably the best-run passenger railroad in American, probably the world. The Super Chief was the flagship.
- When Amtrak took over Santa Fe permitted them to continue using the name Super Chief.
- That ended in a year or so when Santa Fe felt Amtrak’s service was so inferior it was an insult to the “Train of the Stars” to continue using the Super Chief brand.
- The New York Central was still quite good.
- On the Super Chief I had a roomette and on the 20th I had s single Slumbercoach room.
- The single room was similar to a roomette.
- Only the berth was narrow in comparison, so you could use the toilet without having to lift the berth up as you would need to do in a roomette.
- The Slumbercoach was a Budd car introduced for economy sleeping car service during the late 1950s.
- On the 20th Century, Slumbercoach passengers had access to the Dining Car and Observation Car.
- The trains were on time!