Riding the Rails

Illinois Central's City of New Orleans

City of New Orleans - edited.jpg

Vintage postcard shows the Illinois Central’s

City of New Orleans in Hammond, Louisiana


Note the semaphore signal, steel-wheel Railway Express Agency wagons,

and motorized handcar, all elements that are gone from railroading today.

The Railway Express Agency was to shipping by rail what the Federal

Express is to shipping by air, today.

About three times each year, we went to visit my grandparents. Usually, we traveled in the car, but sometimes, we took the train -- the famous City of New Orleans. In those days, the train was owned and operated by the Illinois Central Railroad.


The train stations at both ends of our journey were Queen Anne Victorian in style and had been built in the early years of the twentieth century. They featured deep-red brick exterior walls and platforms. They also featured turrets, where the ticket offices were housed. In each, there were two waiting rooms. One was for white passengers, and one was for black passengers, as was the custom in the days when they were built. They also featured extensions, which housed the Railway Express Agency. That freight organization used wooden wagons on tall, iron wheels to move incoming and outgoing freight between station and train. To this day, I am unable to budge one of those wagons.

Waiting for the train was exciting! Daddy explained how the signals turned to red, yellow, or green, depending on how close the train was, to tell the train driver whether to proceed and at what speed. Invariably, someone would place a penny on the track to see what happened when the train ran over it. It fascinates me to this day that a train is heavy enough to disfigure a coin. Then, as now, we liked to walk along the tracks. Then, restrictions against doing so weren't as stringent as they are now.

In those days, rail travel was privatized. The Illinois Central Railroad ran the City of New Orleans and the Panama Limited between New Orleans and Chicago. Travel-related murals covered the partitions at the ends of the coaches. All lured the passengers to exotic locations where the Illinois Central operated, especially in Florida.

The locomotives were styled like sad-eyed Basset Hounds, especially in their dark-brown livery with orange and yellow trim. They were, of course, E-8 locomotives, which had been manufactured by the Electromotive Division of General Motors.

The cars were manufactured by Pullman and featured baggage cars, coaches, and diners. Bullet-shaped club cars were used on the rear of the finer trains. The restrooms were quaint with a seating area as well as a private water closet. The fixtures were ceramic. The things I remember best are the large windows and the scratchy seats (very uncomfortable to young legs). Conical paper cups dropped down from a dispenser as we fetched water from the ice water dispenser. Oh! And colorful posters advertised exciting places to travel, usually in Florida. 

I remember the low rumble of the engine as it started up. In those days, locomotives lacked the power of today's locomotives, and so, the train started off very slowly and built up speed over several miles. Most notable, however, was the track construction. In those days, tracks were bolted together; whereas, today, they are joined by a system of continuous welding. The bolted tracks offered more of the clickety-clack associated with riding on a train, something akin to driving over tar strips on a concrete highway. That sound and the swaying motion were very relaxing in a rhythmic sort of way, especially on a warm day. One could nod right off to sleep.

In the summer of 1965, between my junior and senior years of high school, my cousin, a  friend, and I took the train to my cousin's home. That train was special. The consist included dining and club cars. The dining car was laid with linen table clothes and napkins and silver-plated flatware. The train's interior had been painted in soothing shades of blue and seemed cleaner than on past trips. In the club car, we ran into three boys about our age. I still remember the handsome one, whom my cousin insisted had baby-blue eyes!

Not all the trains had diners or club cars, especially not as the railroads moved to end private passenger service in the late 1960s. I remember a trip I made at the end of August. The train was an hour or more late arriving. Its air conditioning was not working properly. There was no lounge car or dining car from which to get something to drink. The cone-shaped water cups long since had run out; no doubt, the water in the coolers had, too. At each station stop, the porter debarked with a wooden box. He purchased bottles of Coca Cola from the vending machine and sold the Cokes to the passengers as long as they lasted. Unfortunately, his box was small and held only a half-dozen bottles. The trip was miserable!

In 1971, Illinois Central ceased passenger rail service, and Amtrak began operating its own City of New Orleans. In 1999, the Illinois Central was bought out by the Canadian National, which operates freight trains on the former Illinois Central tracks.

The best video paying homage to the Illinois Central’s City of New Orleans on its last southbound run: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF1lqEQFVUo