Written by C. Christian Monson
While bullet trains usually conjure up images of sleek modern machines gliding through the Japanese or Chinese countryside, the ancestors of these means of mass transport once roamed the American midwest. These “streamliner” trains, as they were called, pushed the boundaries of science and technology in the mid-20th Century, with one particular design earning an immortal spot in train history and Americana: New York Central Railroad’s Mercury.
THE COMMODORE’S EMPIRE
The Mercury was designed in the 1930s by the New York Central Railroad, a railway company that had expanded over the previous 75 years under the ownership of the famous Vanderbilt family. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the patriarch of the dynasty, who, having started his empire with a single ferry in 1810 when he was 16 and earning the nickname “Commodore,” bought the New York Central Railroad in 1867 when it was only running between Albany and Buffalo.
Soon after, Vanderbilt began merging the NYC with many of his other railways like the Hudson River Railroad, Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway, and Canada Southern Railway. Eventually, the NYC was big enough to acquire the “Big Four,” the colloquial name for the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, which had itself been formed by a merger of those four in 1889.
By 1918 NYC lines reached as far east as Quebec and as far west as St. Louis. With the relatively flat terrain that they ran on, many of these lines were able to utilize increasingly fast trains. A few of these became some of the most famous trains in America, such as NYC’s flagship, the 20th Century Limited that ran between New York and Chicago, as well as the James Whitcomb Riley, the Commodore Vanderbilt, and the Mercuries themselves.
THE GOD OF MESSENGERS
Prior to the Mercuries, New York Central operated lines between most of the major cities and towns in the northeast and midwest with terminals in Grand Central Station in New York, Weehawken, New Jersey, South Station in Boston, Cincinnati Union Terminal, Michigan Central Station in Detroit, Union Station in St. Louis, and LaSalle Street Station and Central Station in Chicago. Connecting America’s densely populated east coast with the important industrial centers of the midwest via fast and comfortable trains made NYC one of the country’s most important rail networks.
In the 1930s, NYC sought to increase its traffic in the midwest even more by introducing “streamlined” trains. This was a revolutionary design at the time that focused on aerodynamic rounded cowls that decreased the train’s air resistance.
NYC’s first locomotive of this type was No. 5344. Designed by Henry Dreyfuss, the industrial designer responsible for many iconic American devices including the Model 500 telephone and the Honeywell round thermostat, the 5344 was an adapted J-1e Hudson 4-6-4 steam engine built by the American Locomotive Company, aka Alco. “4-6-4” referred to the wheel arrangement of the locomotive with four leading wheels, six powered driving wheels and four trailing wheels. Running on coal, it could produce a tractive force of nearly 42,000 pounds, or 186 kiloNewtons, more than the thrust of the jet engines used in modern F-16 fighter jets. Its new and striking streamlined design was often described as an “inverted bathtub.”
NYC went on to form a fully streamlined train, the Commodore Vanderbilt, in 1934. Although other companies had introduced streamline trains before that, this one was unique in that it was the first steam-powered streamlined train. With the success of the streamlined design, NYC turned to Dreyfuss to create a whole family of fully streamlined trains: the Mercuries.
New York Central announced the Mercury to the public in May 1936, named after the Roman God of Messengers known for his speed. The first line, the Cleveland Mercury, began service between Cleveland and Detroit with just a single stop in Toledo in July that same year after making an exhibitional tour through major cities from New York to Chicago. It greatly increased ridership on the New York Central Railroad. Despite not losing customers on their other trains, the Cleveland Mercury carried 112,000 passengers in its first year.
THE TRAIN OF TOMORROW
The Mercury‘s popularity was in large part due to its speed. With top speeds over over 120 miles an hour (200 kilometers per hour) and a standard traveling speed of 80 miles an hour (130 kilometers per hour), the train left Cleveland at 7:30 AM and arrived in Detroit at 10:20 AM, making the trip in under three hours, similar to current driving time.
On top of the streamlined outer shell, Mercury was able to reach what was, for the time period, blistering speeds thanks to the Hudson 4-6-2 steam locomotives that pulled it. Additionally, Dreyfuss made an innovative design decision to include roller bearings in the train’s axles.
Despite its state-of-the-art engineering, Mercury was actually quite inexpensive to produce. Initially when Dreyfuss conceived the plans for the train, all the bids to construct it were far too expensive for New York Central Railroad. However, upon returning home disappointed with this news, he passed a trainyard full of unused suburban passenger coaches and was inspired. Instead of building entirely new trains, NYC merely adapted unused locomotives and coaches, ultimately costing a mere quarter of the original bids.
The popularity of the Cleveland Mercury in addition to its inexpensive operation prompted NYC to add two more trains to the Mercury family. Introduced in 1939, the Chicago Mercury ran between Chicago and Detroit in four hours and 45 minutes with two stops in Kalamazoo and Jackson, Michigan. Introduced in 1941, the Cincinnati Mercury ran between Cincinnati and Detroit in six and a half hours with stops in Dayton, Springfield, Bellafontaine, Ohio, and Toledo. Additionally, the James Whitcomb Riley, also introduced in 1941 with essentially the same design as the Mercury trains but consisting exclusively of passenger coaches, ran between Cincinnati and Chicago in five hours and 15 minutes.
Cashing in on the innovative design, NYC advertised the Mercury as “the train of tomorrow.” They set out not only to streamline the outer shell of the locomotives and the cars, but apply the same style to every aspect of the train. This was no small feat considering the train set consisted of nine specialized cars.
The first car consisted of a baggage compartment, smoking compartment and coach seats for 40 passengers. It was followed by another coach seating 48 that included another smoking compartment. The third car had 18 seats but was primarily devoted to the on-board kitchen. Attached to the kitchen was a dining car, elaborately and comfortably decorated with capacity for 56. Two full coaches followed, both seating 56 as well.
After that came the lounge, which had a full bar, and then the parlor car, divided into three sections including a private meeting room for six people. The last car was perhaps the most impressive and innovative. Rounded like the rest of the streamlined train, it was an observation car where passengers could look out on the passing landscape thanks to lowered four-foot tall windows and central seating that faced them. There was also a mounted speedometer showing the real-time velocity of the train.
Dreyfuss’s goal with the interior was to match the streamlined ideal by creating a train that didn’t feel so linear and monotonous. To do this, he broke up seating and compartments by changing the orientation of the seats and dividing cars into multiple sections. More significantly, he added round vestibules between the cars with rubber flooring and carpeting to reduce vibrations and give the illusion of just another room on the train.
The exterior was just as futuristic—at least for the time. The streamlined bathtub cowl covered most of the locomotive’s machinery and pipes. However, it was cut away to show the wheels which were illuminated by three 50-Watt and two 15-Watt lamps underneath the cowl that made the moving train especially striking at night.
While Dreyfuss prided himself on being a practical designer who made his choices based on the engineering needs of the train like aerodynamics, his designs took on a life of their own and spread far beyond the needs of high-speed trains. In fact, they became an iconic part of mid-20th Century Americana.
“Streamlined Moderne,” as the style is called, is related to Art Deco and grew in popularity throughout the 30s, coming to define much of the American aesthetic. Intended to improve aerodynamics, it was first applied to forms of transportation, not just trains, but cars, trucks and airplanes. However, it came to reflect modernity, sleekness and cutting-edge technology so much that designers began applying the rounded, airship look to everything from toasters to telephones.
Perhaps most recognizably, Streamlined Moderne influenced architecture. Iconic American buildings in the style include the Aquatic Park Bathhouse in San Francisco, the Pan-Pacific Theater and Radio City Hollywood in Los Angeles, and Hotel Shangri-la in Santa Monica as well as train, bus and boat terminals around the country.
The Mercury trains themselves no longer run. All three lines had terminated service by 1959, mostly due to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s order for coal-fueled trains to reduce service, making the lines unprofitable for New York Central Railroad. Though it stopped operation as a streamliner, the James Whitcomb Riley actually continued running until 1971, when Amtrak took over the line and incorporated it into the Cardinal service that still runs today between New York and Chicago.
New York Central Railroad merged with Pennsylvania Railroad in 1968 to form Penn Central, which itself went bankrupt in 1970. In response, President Richard Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act, which created Amtrak, the government-subsidized railway that would take over the vast majority of intercity passenger trains in the US. With the decline of the NYC and its fellow railroad giants, streamlined trains gradually disappeared. Nevertheless, whether it’s a dusty rotary telephone you find in your grandma’s attic or LaGuardia airport’s terminal A, you’ve likely seen the legacy of trains like the Mercury and their streamlined design.
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