U.S.: Riding the Santa Fe’s Famed “El Capitan” … Christmas … and those Hi-Level Deluxe Chair Cars With Every Seat At Dome Car Height

By Russ and Susan Jackson, Guest Commentators; December 9, 2021

The author Paul Theroux wrote many stories about train travel. He said, “Anything is possible on a train…” and we agree. Veteran train riders, especially those of us who traveled the long distance trains “back then” and still do so today, look back and agree that there’s always “something magical about Christmas train travel.” Bruce Richardson used that line as the title of a post on this platform earlier this month, and he couldn’t be more right. Railroads with passenger trains made Christmas time travel “special.” Christmas catalogs even today feature the C&O’s “Chessie Cat.”

We remember the trips we took on the Santa Fe Railway in 1967 and 1970 before the advent of Amtrak, before and after the birth of our daughter Kimberly, riding the El Capitan between Los Angeles Union Station and Chicago Union Station enroute to family in Michigan.

The territory in between those stations stands out in our memories ‒ of speeding through small towns in Missouri and Illinois at daybreak with snow on the ground and no one moving around. With us, it was travel in what is called a Coach today, or a “Hi-Level deluxe chair car with every seat at dome car height” then, enjoying Santa Fe’s top service with maybe hundreds of fellow riders, each one, each couple, each family, with different station destinations but the same Christmas “destination.”

Yes, that’s us in our photo of Susan, and Kimberly age 2 2/3, boarding the El Capitan on the brightly lit platform at Los Angeles Union Station in December 1970. We had just arrived on the connecting San Diegan. Our car attendant was standing by and would be with us all the way. We wonder what happened to him; did he stay on the job after Amtrak? We’ll never know that, but we do remember the trip. For one thing, the train was combined with the Super Chief that winter in the last five months of Santa Fe passenger trains before Amtrak took over running the train.

Also on the El Capitan was the job of the “Courier Nurse,” an RN, who “is aboard to assist mothers traveling with children and any passengers requiring her assistance.” She also did the public address system announcements as the train “passes points of interest enroute.” Sadly, Amtrak eliminated that job.

Traveling at the same time, in the Super Chief section, was the Vice Principal of the high school east of San Diego where I was working. He and his wife invited us to come enjoy the famous Vista-dome car, our first look at “first class” train travel. The trip was also highlighted by a family of 10 (!) riding in our car. Kimberly quickly made friends with some of their young children. Her interest brightened when she found the family had brought a big bag of snacks and were happy to share some with her. We don’t remember things like on time performance; it was Christmastime, and we were all excited to be “going.”

Long distance train travelers look forward to the food and beverage service, and the Santa Fe’s was outstanding right up to its transfer to the new Amtrak. We look back on the menus AND to the fares we paid to ride back near the end of the so-called “golden age” of train travel. The fares above are from the Santa Fe’s 1967 “One-price Ticket” brochure, as is the menu. We don’t remember how much we paid but think what it costs on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief today!

Oh, the photo below the fares isn’t us, but tells a great story. Amtrak: do you tell the same story in your promotions? Today’s Coach passengers are not yet allowed to partake of Amtrak’s Dining Car, but meals and access are included for Sleeping Car riders.

Back then we looked forward to the Hi-Level Dining Car for “penthouse style dining” as the Santa Fe touted it. What appealed to us on our 1967 trip was the Santa Fe’s “Chico Early Dinner…  Roast Young Tom Turkey, Dressing, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes, New Corn, Dinner Rolls, Wild Blackberry Sundae, Beverage (Fish selection available on Fridays).” The Cash price: $2.10! Breakfast and Lunch were freshly prepared, too, and we enjoyed them all. I’m “told,” at one dinner aboard I “asked if I could have seconds of the ‘braised beef,’ and got it.”  Would that happen today? In the current era of “Flexible” vs “Traditional” dining on Amtrak the thought of TV dinner seconds on the Texas Eagle is…. not there.

The riders seen boarding the “Top of the Cap” Hi-Level Lounge Car above are obviously in a drawing, as passengers did not board that car then, and of course don’t board today’s Amtrak Sightseer Lounge. Dress today is much more like the folks on the right in the drawing, but back then it was a dress-up occasion to ride trains. The Santa Fe timetable is copied from their 1967 edition. A few changes have gone into effect since that time: Route changes eliminated stops in Illinois at Joliet, Streator, and Chillicothe in favor of the speedier line from Chicago to Galesburg. In Arizona the crew-change stop at the historic railroad town Seligman, and at Williams Junction (Grand Canyon) have been eliminated. Station stops at Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas that the Santa Fe had served with its San Francisco Chief were added by Amtrak.

In Southeast Iowa, “Shopton” was a crew-change stop a mile west of Fort Madison. In December 2021, a new (old) station for Amtrak opens for the Southwest Chief near the rebuilt waterfront in Fort Madison, close to the railroad/highway bridge crossing the Mississippi River. In California the route change from the Santa Fe’s second district eliminated Pomona and the historic Pasadena station where so many celebrities boarded but added Riverside and Fullerton. The running time for the Los Angeles to Chicago trip in 1967 was close to what Amtrak does today.

Memories of those Hi-Level cars are not restricted to the Santa Fe days. In the mid-1990s Amtrak West took the Hi-Level Lounge cars and under the direction of Brian Rosenwald created the “Pacific Parlour” cars, for first class lounge service on the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle.

The photo above was taken in 2003 when the Starlight stopped at the Davis, California station. They ran for almost 25 years until Amtrak management decided they were “too costly” to maintain. Where are those 1950’s cars today? Bruce Richardson provided us the answer: “All of the Parlour Cars are still around, as are the diners. A couple of coaches (like the one above seen when they were parked at Fair Park in Dallas five years ago) have been scrapped. The BNSF bought one and has made it part of their company train used by work crews and is back in original stainless steel with BNSF on the former Santa Fe letterboard. Most of the rest are in storage.” Traveling today from Los Angeles to Chicago on Amtrak’s western long distance Superliner cars brings memories of the Santa Fe’s El Capitan as if it were Christmastime again so long ago. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!

All photos and illustrations are photographs taken by the authors or items from their collection.

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