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A History of Dining Cars

[by Linda Hackbarth 10-2023]

When the first passenger trains began running in the 1830s, no thought was given to the comfort of passengers. They sat on wooden benches in open cars, with soot and cinders falling on them. The noise was deafening. Passengers on long trip had to bring their own food if they wanted to eat. By the early 1900s, however, there were comfortable seats on most trains plus observation cars, smoking cars, upper and lower berths for sleeping and even private bedrooms. Dining cars offered luxurious food, served on real china by waiters in tuxedos or white dinner jackets.
How did that evolution occur? In the beginning, frequent break-downs and delays on long trips led passengers to carry food in lunch baskets, but odor was often a problem. Because of this, some travelers chose to buy food from trackside vendors, whose quality was not always the best. By the late 1840s, railroads were allowing “news butchers” on the passenger cars – boys who sold newspapers, magazines, apples, peanuts, candy, and other snacks. They would board the train at one stop, sell their goods, and get off at the next stop in time to board a train heading in the opposite direction, continuing their sales until they reached their home station.

Beginning in 1856, railroad stations also began offering in-house food service, usually provided by the train company employee’s wives. Despite allowing just 20-30 minutes for a meal stop, train schedules were impacted by the delays. It tool the Civil War for railroad officials to appreciate the need to prepare and serve food on their trains. Hospital trains needed to feed wounded soldiers, most of whom were unable to disembark, or needed suitable food while convalescing. The idea of cooking on trains began in earnest. Railroad companies converted old baggage cars into kitchens with snack bars.

Passengers, however, wanted real meals, so trains began to stop every so often to let them eat at restaurants and hotels that developed along the railroad routes. These would be restaurants subcontracted to provide food at railroad terminals. One example is the Fred Harvey Company’s series of restaurants and hotels alongside the tracks which began in 1876. Harvey and his company also became leaders in promoting tourism in the American Southwest. Harvey promoted the region by inspiring the "Indian curio" (native memento) shop, as well as guided tours through the American southwest called "Indian Detours". The company, with its employees including renowned waitresses later known as Harvey Girls, successfully brought higher standards of food service and cuisine to a region then mainly known as "the Wild West". When Harvey died in 1901, his family inherited 45 restaurants and 20 dining cars in 12 states.
Gradually trains added elegant, purpose-built dining cars, the first in 1867 by none other than George Pullman, who had introduced his sleeping car two years earlier. It had a 3x6-foot kitchen, a wine closet, and a pantry operated by a crew of four or five at a cost of $24,000. The car carried 1,000 napkins, 150 tablecloths, china, glassware, 133 food items, enough for up to a seven-day trip. The conductor walked around taking orders from a large menu, and the meal was served on tables temporarily fastened to the wall. It was royal luxury to the passenger of that time. Service was provided by white clad, impeccably clean waiters. But there was still a problem. How do you get to the dining car? It was a dangerous endeavor as one had to jump over the gap between car ends while the train was moving and twisting. In 1887, George Pullman invented “The Sessions Vestibule”. An elastic diaphragm mounted on a steel frame and held firm by powerful springs allowed the passenger to easily and safely walk right over the gap.

The dining car was a marvel of organization. From its humble beginnings of 60 feet long, modern cars turned into a length of 200 feet. Railroads developed their own logo marked china and extra heavy silverplated flatware. Re-equipping the cars was a never-ending job, done with great skill. Only the highest quality of beef, veal, mutton, poultry, fish, or pork was selected. Dairy and fruit items were of the best quality. They were always on the lookout for unusual items that a consumer could not get at home. For example, The Great Big Baked Potato was touted by the Northern Pacific. They discovered that large Yakima Valley potatoes were being fed to the pigs because, at 5 pounds, they were too large and were considered impossible to bake.
A two-pound spud was deemed ideal, but larger than we typically get today. The secret to baking was to deeply pierce each end with an ice pick and add a pan of water in the oven to replace lost moisture. Other lines promoted their French toast, Dover Sole, Whitefish, Wenatchee apples, Lobster Newburg on Toasted Cornbread, steaks, and the like. The Wenatchee Valley apple (Rome Beauty) was promoted by Great Northern for their large size and delicious taste, and special dishes were promoted using the apples on the train. Railroad lines would contract for food and beverage items. For example, the Union Pacific joined forces with the Roma Wine Company in the 1940's to private label white wine.
Amazing food came out of these small, cramped, very hot kitchens (up to 125°), where, on cross country Limited Trains, they would have to produce three meals a day. The chefs were very innovative. Bisquick was invented by chefs of the Southern Pacific and revolutionized American eating habits. An executive of General Mills was astounded how quickly he received an order of hot biscuits and asked the chef how it was done. The chef told him he blended flour, baking powder, salt and lard together, then put it in an ice chest for later use. Seeing the commercial, potential General Mills then turned it into a Betty Crocker product for sale to average consumers, and it didn't have to be refrigerated. The Pullman Loaf was sandwich bread baked in square, straight sided pans so that all sides were the same size. This enabled better stacking and storing of the loaf in a crowded kitchen than regular rounded top, beveled sided loaves. To keep bacon from curling up and breaking, it was first partially cooked in the oven to break the grain of the meat, then placed in the broiler to finish. Thus prepared, it laid flat on the plate without crumbling or curling. Menus were unusual, but not so far away from what patrons were used to lest they be afraid to order an item.
Having dining cars actually shortened the length of time it took to arrive at one’s destination. Soon dining cars with on-board chefs with reputations for fine food brought new competition among railroad companies. By the 1880s and 1890s, the meals in some dining cars were so good that people rode the trains just for the quality of the food – as well as the novel experience of eating on a moving train.

Elegant dining on trains peaked in the late 1920s. The Great Depression of the 30s forced railroad companies to cut costs by cutting services. Then rationing during World War II hit dining cars hard. Following the war automobile travel increased exponentially as a result of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway Program. Ridership fell in the 1950s and 60s. By 1983 most U.S. independent railroads that carried passengers had either gone bankrupt or been purchased by the Railroad Passenger Corporation – Amtrak. While Amtrak continued to serve prepared meals on board after its 1971 start-up, today that is no longer the case with the diner being replaced by snack cars and vending machines.

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