Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before… I found a really cool railroad ad that I absolutely love. Okay, okay, I’ve said that far too many times. One of my most recent acquisitions is this 1902 advertisement for the famous 20th Century Limited. This famous train has little to do with the Harlem Line – it ran along the New York Central’s “Water Level Route” – part of which is today’s Hudson Line. But on the rare occasion where there was a problem on the tracks, the train could be diverted to Chatham and instead run down the Harlem Division, into Grand Central.
Part of the reason why I love this ad is the history behind it. The advertisement was printed in the inaugural year of the 20th Century Limited. In 1902, trains really were the best way of transportation in the United States. Although cars did exist, they didn’t really become available to the masses until 1908. At the time the ad was printed, the Wright Brothers had not yet made their historic flight. The world did not see its first passenger “airline” running scheduled flights until 1919. And the first automobile road across the United States, the Lincoln Highway, was not completed until 1913 – though much of it was unpaved and of poor quality. The true modernization of our intercity roads did not come until 1956 with the Interstate Highway System, truly sparking America’s love affair with the car. The glamor of rail travel began to fade, and the automobile replaced the train as the preferred method of transportation in this country. But in this ad the train was still king – and the 20th Century Limited was the most grand of all.
Obviously the pricetag of an early car was nothing for the Vanderbilts’ fortune. William Kissam Vanderbilt can be seen here in his racing car in 1904. [image credit]
The one thing I do find slightly amusing about this ad (I always find something slightly amusing – I’m easily amused) is how it somewhat shows the stagnation of our train technology. While other countries developed effective high speed rail systems, we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of fast trains. As visible in the ad, the original travel time for the 20th Century Limited was 20 hours. Over the years that time was whittled down to fifteen and a half hours. Today, Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited follows a very similar route to the 20th Century Limited, and makes the journey in 19 hours. Although the Lake Shore Limited makes more stops than the 20th Century, one would think that in over a hundred years we’d be running a whole lot faster than that.
The United States has had many “firsts” in railroad history – like the first four-track railroad in the world – but other countries have far surpassed us in railroad technology and innovation. The highest speed record for a train is 361 mph (a test train, the record for an actual passenger train is around 245 mph), but unless we build dedicated rail lines for faster trains, we’ll never see an American train going more than 150mph. Perhaps we may fly someday – on a fast train speeding across rails of glinting steel.