U.S., Travel and Train History: 20th Century Limited, Overseas Railway, Amtrak, Auto Train, The Love Boat, Brightline and Disneyland’s Santa Fe Railway Train

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; January 15, 2021

Railroads were the first in the transportation industry to help create tourism in the United States and Canada. While sailing ships and steamboats carried passengers on coastal and river routes, it was the new railroads which reached far and wide, spinning a spider web of steel rails all over North America. Before there were many formal roads and highways, there were ships and barges and then trains. Today’s modern cruise lines and passenger airline practices before the 1980s were all based on what was first learned by railroads as to how to graciously handle passengers and their travel needs.

Out of the hundreds of names who can be credited with founding the modern travel, transportation, and tourism industry, here is a very brief and incomplete selection of luminaries from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, mostly focusing on the East:

• Cornelius Vanderbilt, was born in the 18th Century and lived until 1877; he was a steamboat and steamship entrepreneur who ventured into railroads and eventually created the New York Central Railroad. The New York Central would grow to become one of the most powerful companies in America, build Grand Central Terminal in New York City, and operate such glamorous trains as the 20th Century Limited between New York City and Chicago.

• Henry M. Flagler, born in the 19th Century and living into the first two decades of the 20th Century, founder of the Florida East Coast Railway, and “inventor” of the east coast of Florida, being the creative force behind transforming such destinations as St. Augustine, Daytona Beach, Cocoa, Titusville, and Melbourne, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and, after being sold on it by Julia Tuttle, Miami and Miami Beach from mere hamlets of civilization to major domestic and international tourist destinations. It was the New York passenger trains of the Atlantic Coast Line and the Seaboard Air Line which traveled over Flagler’s railroad south of Jacksonville, bringing tourists and new residents into an empty Florida. For extra fun, he oversaw the engineering and construction miracle of the Overseas Railway from the tip of Florida’s peninsula over the Florida Keys to Key West. The Overseas Railway opened in 1912 (with Flagler attending the opening) and was destroyed in 1935 by the infamous Labor Day Hurricane. After a period of time when the Great Depression victim bankrupt FEC could not rebuild the railway over the keys, the roadbed was turned over to the State of Florida which converted the railbed and bridges into the Overseas Highway/U.S.1. U.S. 1 runs from Key West to Fort Kent, Maine on the New Brunswick/Canadian border.

• Henry B. Plant, a 19th Century contemporary of Henry Flagler, founder of the Southern Express Company which became the Plant System and morphed into the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and created much of the west coast of Florida, starting with the small town of Tampa and building from there. The Plant System/Atlantic Coast Line Railroad would be the primary provider of New York – Florida trains which would use the Florida East Coast tracks until the early 1960s. These trains would include the East Coast Champion, Havana Special, Florida Special, and many others.

• John L. Williams was the man who combined smaller railroads into the Seaboard Air Line Railway, and helped bring millions of tourists to both coasts of Florida. The Seaboard began April 14, 1900 and lasted until Seaboard Coast Line in July 1967. Seaboard’s trains included the Orange Blossom Special, Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Silver Comet, Palmland, Sunland, Tidewater, and others. Southbound trains originated at New York Pennsylvania Station and terminated in Miami, with trains also serving Florida’s West Coast and the Silver Comet terminating in Birmingham, Alabama.

• James J. Hill, the “empire builder” who created the Great Northern Railway, serving the top tier of the nation and into Canada. Today’s Amtrak Empire Builder is named in his honor. Hill was a believer in private funding in an era of railroad barons who used whatever means possible to build their railroads and beat the competition. His legacy is today’s BNSF Railway headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, which also includes the former Santa Fe Railway, one of the most prestigious passenger carriers of the 20th Century.

• The Big Four, individually known as Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. Between them, they created much of modern California in the 19th Century, and the Central Pacific Railroad, eventually the Southern Pacific Railroad, and then Huntington came east and created the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

• George M. Pullman, the 19th Century man who invented the sleeping car, Pullman’s Palace Car Company, and then simply the Pullman Company. Pullman built all types of railroad passenger cars, but also operated under contract to the railroads Pullman sleeping cars. George Pullman was considered one of the masters of modern travel marketing and advertising. In 1943, Pullman cars were carrying 26,000,000 passengers that year, in addition to all of the coach passengers the railroads were carrying.

• Frederick H. Harvey, founder of the Fred Harvey Company in 1876, considered the creator of the first “chain” restaurants in the United States through Harvey House restaurants in Santa Fe and other railroad stations, plus later operated dining cars for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

• Conrad Hilton and J.W. Marriott were the men who invented the modern chain of hotels and motels. Hilton was born in the late 19th Century and lived into the second half of the 20th Century. Marriott was born in 1900 and lived into the 1980s. Hilton would begin with a single hotel and build a worldwide chain, first based in Texas. Marriott would begin as a restauranteur in Washington, D.C. and build a chain of hotels, hospitality services, and restaurants that became the largest in the world. Both men understood a growing and restless nation needed comfortable accommodations and food service when traveling. Both first relied on the railroads and the Pullman Company to bring their guests to their hotels, then later moved into hotels and motels serving customers who drove their private vehicles and also arrived by air travel. Their modern, efficient, and predictable hotel and motel properties brought a semblance of order to the hospitality business; travelers came to expect certain minimum standards when patronizing their hotels. They would blaze a path followed by Howard Johnson’s, Holiday Inn, Sheraton, Hyatt, and many others.

• Kemmons Wilson, born in the early 20th Century and living until the very first of the 21st Century was the founder of the pioneering Holiday Inn chain of roadside mid-priced motels and hotels. Through the years Holiday Inn’s basic plan of guest rooms accessible directly from parking lots along with a swimming pool and onsite full service restaurant would help grow the chain to a worldwide hospitality conglomerate. Holiday Inn, along with Howard Johnson’s, Best Western, Quality Inn and Ramada Inn would redefine long distance automobile travel, both for families and business road warriors. The company developed one of the first comprehensive guest reservations systems, as well as purchased Continental Trailways interstate bus company in 1968 and merged the two companies together. Holiday Inn would later sell the bus company in 1979. The chain’s iconic huge roadside signs announcing this was a Holiday Inn location became famous far and wide. The name, Holiday Inn, was adapted from the 1942 popular Hollywood movie, Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The name originally was a joke in the initial planning stages, but it stuck. The first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis, Tennessee in 1952. The growth of both the new federal interstate highways and mid-priced chains of dependable, predictable roadside lodgings upended the travel industry to a point not seen until the widespread introduction of jet airliners.

• Dwight David Eisenhower, President from January 1953 to January 1961 would be instrumental in the creation of the interstate highway system, formally known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. During this same period, Pan American World Airways began regular Boeing 707 service, ushering in the age of passenger jet travel.

• Walt Disney, creator of Mickey Mouse and entertainment mogul first opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955 and later announced the creation of Walt Disney World in the small town of Orlando, Florida in late 1965. In late 1966 he died of cancer, but Disney World would open on October 1, 1971, almost immediately shifting the focus of Florida tourism from traditional coastal beach cities to a now-booming Orlando and Central Florida. Following soon would be other major attractions such as Universal Studio and SeaWorld. Central Florida, with Orlando as its center, would quickly become the world’s single largest tourist destination. When the original Disneyland opened in California, Disney, who was a train buff (he had his own garden railroad at his home), had the passenger train attraction circling the inside of Disneyland operated by the Santa Fe Railway. The Santa Fe honored railroad employee passes on the Disneyland park system.

• Lyndon Baines Johnson, President from November 1963 to January 1969, in late 1967 directed the transfer of mail and express contracts from railroads to trucks and airlines, eliminating the primary revenue of local, all-stops trains and some streamliners. This would also signal the coming end of Railway Express Agency (REA Express) operations. This single act, more than the interstate highway system and the advent of jet travel would create the end of the era of passenger train travel because of starvation of revenues.

• Richard M. Nixon, President from January 1969 until August 1974, after being pressured by his Department of Transportation and cabinet officials, agreed to sign the Rail Passenger Service Act, which Congress passed in 1970. Amtrak was created because the loss of the United States Mail and express contracts directed by the Johnson Administration removed huge sources of income for passenger trains, negating the need for many all-stops, local trains and taking revenue away from some main line streamliners. Thus was formed the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, or Amtrak as it is commonly known. Not all, but most of America’s freight railroads exited the passenger business in favor of Amtrak being the new, national passenger carrier. Amtrak began operations on May 1, 1971. The 366 train routes that operated on April 30, 1971 were pruned to 184 with the start of Amtrak operations.

• Eugene K. Garfield, creator of the original Auto-Train Corporation, began suburban Washington, D.C. to Sanford, Florida service on December 6, 1971 with former private railroad equipment not taken by Amtrak. The under-financed service would end in April 1981, but would be resurrected as part of Amtrak in October 1983.

• Henry C. Christie, former Amtrak transportation and maintenance senior official in the early years of Amtrak brought semblance and order to Amtrak’s rolling stock. Among other major projects, Mr. Christie oversaw the inspection of every piece of passenger rolling stock inherited from the private railroads at the beginning of Amtrak and created the “A and B lists” of which equipment was retained by Amtrak and converted to head-end power (HEP) as the Heritage Fleet and which equipment was sold. It was mostly Budd stainless steel rolling stock which was retained and Pullman-Standard carbon steel rolling stock which had deteriorated beyond a useful life and was disposed of by the company. The last of the Heritage Fleet was retired by Amtrak in 2019.

• Jimmy Carter, President from January 1977 to January 1981, oversaw Amtrak’s first big system cuts, eliminating the Floridian, National Limited, Lone Star, Hilltopper, and others. During the Carter Administration the Staggers Act was also passed by Congress and signed into law. Named in honor of its patron, West Virginia Congressman Harley O. Staggers, the act would deregulate railroads and allow considerably greater freedom to operate the businesses with less government control. It was what railroads considered the happy second act after the formation of Amtrak, relieving freight railroads of the obligation to run passenger trains, then removing much of the remaining federal regulation. Also during this same time the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) would also be discontinued, eliminating much airline regulation, including regulation of fares. This would unleash a new era of airline passenger travel via low-cost, discount carriers and force the major legacy carriers to restructure their businesses to meet the low-cost competition and would usher in the continuing era of smaller seats, less leg room, and crowded airplanes.

• Aaron Spelling and Douglas S. Cramer were the executive producers of The Love Boat, the hour-long Saturday night ABC television series which ran for 250 episodes and five specials over nine seasons from 1977 to 1986. The series, known for being heavily populated by guest stars who were aging former movie and television stars, was set on the real Princess Cruises ship MS Pacific Princess, which at the time was considered a luxury cruise liner. The ship, which by today’s standards was strikingly small with few modern amenities has long since been scrapped. But, the popular television show almost single-handedly revived a near-dormant cruise industry and helped the public understand cruises were about vacations themselves and not just transportation from one port to another. Today’s cruise industry creates over $37 billion a year in revenue worldwide. The Love Boat proved that “old transportation technology” such as cruises, which harkened back to the days of sailing ships could be revived and turned into a blockbuster industry with a strong financial base and wide appeal to travelers and vacationers.

• W. Graham Claytor, Jr., was the longest serving President of Amtrak, serving 11 years from 1982 to 1993. As quoted from Wikipedia: “In 1982, Claytor came out of retirement to lead Amtrak. He was recruited and strongly supported by John H. Riley, an attorney who was also the head of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) under the Reagan Administration from 1983 to 1989.

“Claytor maintained a good relationship with the U.S. Congress during his 11 years in the position. Within 7 years of being under Claytor’s leadership, Amtrak was generating enough money to cover 72 percent of its $1.7 billion operating budget by 1989, up from 48 percent in 1981. This was achieved mainly through vigorous cost cutting and aggressive marketing. He is credited with bringing political and operational stability to the nation’s passenger train network, keeping the railroad functioning properly despite repeated attempts by the administrations of Reagan and his successor George H.W. Bush to eliminate its funding.

“Claytor retired from Amtrak in 1993.”

• Wes Edens, one of the founders of Fortress Investment Group would begin operation in 2018 of higher-speed Brightline service between MiamiCentral Station and West Palm Beach in Southeast Florida over Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast tracks. The service would temporarily halt in 2020 due to the pandemic, but continues to build out its line from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport and a Walt Disney World station as it continues planning to extend service to Tampa on Florida’s West Coast. Brightline became the first privately funded and built passenger service in the Amtrak era. Post-pandemic and when the service opens to Orlando, 16 daily roundtrips are planned between Orlando and Miami. Brightline is also expanding its service to the Port of Miami to provide direct ship-to-train transfers, the first in Florida since Henry Flagler’s Key West-Havana, Cuba ship-to-train transfers a full century before Brightline. Brightline’s MiamiCentral Station was built in the exact same spot Flagler’s wooden Miami station was constructed for the Florida East Coast passenger trains. The original FEC passenger station was torn down in the 1960s after FEC passenger train service was mostly ended.

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