Bidding B&O passenger trains goodbye

In its day, the Capitol Limited was the way to go to Chicago, and known for its sybaritic pleasures and critically acclaimed cuisine

May 07, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

With the coming of Amtrak 40 years ago last week, many of the nation's fabled passenger trains, including the Baltimore & Ohio's premier Capitol Limited, which sailed daily between Washington and Chicago for nearly 50 years, began their final runs April 30, 1971.

The clock inextricably ticked toward midnight when at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, May 1, 1971, the National Railroad Passenger Corp. — better known as Amtrak — would assume operation of 182 passenger trains with 21 intercity routes that served 314 American cities and towns.

Another 178 were doomed to extinction, as rail fans across the nation watched, many with cameras to record their passing, bidding them godspeed as they rolled off the timetables and into memory.

At 12:01, the B&O, which had sold the nation's first passenger ticket when the original line between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills opened with horse cars on May 24, 1830, would find itself bereft of passenger trains for the first time in 141 years.

As unimaginable as it seemed, its entire fleet of long-distance trains would be stricken. None of the B&O's passenger trains would make the transition to Amtrak. The only B&O trains that did survive and were not Amtrak-operated were its commuter trains into Washington and Pittsburgh.

Always acutely aware of its historic place in American railroading, the B&O — the nation's first common carrier railroad when it was chartered in 1827 — was exiting the passenger business as the class act it always was.

The centerpiece for its farewell was the Capitol Limited — in railroad parlance No. 5 westbound and No. 6 eastbound — in a round trip that would end at Baltimore's Camden Station on the morning of May 1, 1971.

When the train, which was the brainchild of B&O President Daniel Willard and also known as "The Cap," made its debut on May 13, 1923, The Sun heralded it as a "train that will give Baltimore a 20-hour service to Chicago" and will be "equal in appointments and running time with the Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central and the Broadway Limited of the Pennsylvania Railroad."

The newspaper boasted that the new train would prove popular with government officials and businessmen traveling to Chicago and with Western passengers heading to Washington and New York.

"It will be a solid Pullman train, with no extra fare, and will have a club car, compartments and drawing room sleepers and an observation lounge car; the latter of which contains sleeping accommodations and a lounge with moveable chairs in addition to the observation platform," according to the newspaper.

Passengers aboard the Capitol were exposed to the same sybaritic and convenient pleasures found on its rivals, the Broadway Limited and the Twentieth Century Limited.

They could step into shower baths. A barber offered a shave for 25 cents and doubled the price for a haircut. Train maids charged 75 cents for a manicure.

For busy executives, an on-board male train secretary took dictation and dispatched Western Union telegrams. A cure for wrinkled suits was provided by valets who happily pressed them. Helpful porters offered lap robes for those who braved the breezes, dirt and cinders of the observation platform as the train made its way along the Potomac River Valley.

Passengers dined on legendary cuisine aboard one of its elegant Martha Washington series of Colonial dining cars, with their distinctive leaded-glass windows, dark woodwork, shaded table lamps and sconces.

The new train shaved two hours off the 991-mile journey of the former New York-Chicago Limited, which it replaced. At the time of its unveiling, a letter writer to The Sun was furious that the new train was named the Capitol Limited and wondered why the railroad went to Washington "to find a name for it" in the first place. Why not call it "Baltimore's Own" or "The Baltimorean," he suggested. But the Capitol Limited name stuck.

For three years, the Capitol Limited departed from the PRR's Pennsylvania Station in New York City. After 1926, it operated out of the Central Railroad of New Jersey's Communipaw Terminal in Jersey City until 1958, when the B&O ended passenger service north of Baltimore on its Royal Blue Route.

In 1938, steam power was withdrawn when the train became the first modern diesel streamliner in the East, with its distinctive blue, gray and yellow cars.

As a result of the 1958 service elimination, trains departed from Washington, requiring passengers taking the Capitol to board an afternoon Budd car connecting train at Camden Station for Union Station, where they boarded.

William F. Howes Jr., the last director of passenger services for the B&O Railroad and Chesapeake & Ohio Railway, serving from 1969 to the birth of Amtrak, had ridden the Capitol Limited by his own estimation at least 115 times during his lengthy railroad career.

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