The all-Pullman extra fare train that ran nightly between New York and Chicago.
- 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.
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.