On the Rails: Part 1

Today on Museum Bites we’re hitting the rails with a whirlwind tour through the National Railroad Museum in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In this first of a two-part series, we’ll chug across the country plowing the rails, breaking speed records, and whipping up a batch of chowder. We begin on a bruising bus train…

Bouncy Bus:  In the 1950s, car mania swept the nation. Americans loved the independence afforded by their big bodied, chrome beauties, and they racked up mileage cruising the strip or President Eisenhower’s new national freeway system (Click on this Museum Bites: Mother Road link to learn more). Desperate for a fix, railroad execs approached the design experts at the General Motors Electro-Motive Division. Their solution? The Aerotrain. Tricked out with tail fins and a modified city-bus body, this lightweight, high-speed diesel train was designed to entice the car-crazed public back onto the rails.

The Aerotrain, however, turned out to be a hot, loud, bruising ride. Built to run at 100 mph, the two-axle air suspension designed for slow-moving buses, bounced and battered passengers brave enough to endure the trip. Vestibules situated at the ends of each car had the uncanny ability to amplify track and engine noise. To make matters worse, the air conditioning was prone to fail, especially in desert climes like the Los Angeles to Las Vegas run. Ridership plummeted and within a few short years, the three Aerotrain prototypes were sold for a fraction of the cost to Rock Island & Pacific Railway. They spent their final days shuttling commuters in and around the Chicago area at a more stately pace and were eventually decommissioned in 1966.

Aerotrain, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)-1-300px
Aerotrain, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Fun Train Fact #1:  In 1956, Union Pacific Railroad signed a six-month lease with General Motors to use one of the three Aerotrains for their LA to Las Vegas run. Nicknamed the Gambler’s Special, this particular Aerotrain boasted a Howdy Partner club car and Chuck Wagon buffet dining car. Meals were included in the ticket price—a railroad first! A one-way ticket cost $9.99 and round-trip set passengers back $17.99.

Burlington Zephyr (c1940), WikiMedia Commoms
Burlington Zephyr (c1940), Wikimedia Commons

Silver Streak:  I was thrilled to stumble across our next train, the Burlington Zephyr. The National Railroad Museum is home to one of the cars belonging to this record-breaking train. In 1934, this sleek, art deco-esque train made a 1,015 mile nonstop trip from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours. Breaking the world record for longest and fastest nonstop trip, the Silver Streak’s diesel-electric engine reached a top speed of 112.5 mph in this Dawn to Dusk Dash.

The engine and two cars from the fleet Burlington Zephyr are currently on display at the Chicago Museum of Science & Industry. Click on this Let’s Ride the Zephyr video clip to see the Silver Streak in action. Click on this Museum Bites: Dazzling Deco link to learn more about the Zephyr’s influence on art deco.

Wooden Workhorse:  Our next train was built c1910 by the Russell Car & Snowplowing Company. Fitted with a massive steel wedge plow, this wooden train blasted through drifts in an effort to swiftly funnel snow up and off the tracks. Prior to the snowplow train, crews were required to shovel the rails by hand. The work was backbreaking and time-consuming. At the turn of the last century, railroad companies tried a variety of methods to speed up the process. The wedge-shaped plow mounted on the front of a train was one successful option and the plow’s design has not changed much over the past century. The snowplow train on display at the National Railroad Museum spent its days clearing the snowy rails of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Milwaukee Road No. 2 Caboose, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)-2-300px
Milwaukee Road No. 2 Caboose, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Colorful Caboose:  Our final train featured today is the Milwaukee Road No. 2 Caboose. Tricked out in a vivid orange paint, this delightful car looks like something from Thomas the Tank Engine. Built in 1889, the No. 2 Caboose was part of the beer and barley run, transporting grains from Minnesota farms south to Milwaukee breweries. The repetitive run between Milwaukee and the Twin Cities was not without some excitement. In the 1920s, the Milwaukee Road train derailed and 20 cars tumbled into the Beaver Dam Pond. Fortunately, the conductor and good old No. 2 Caboose survived after six hours in the water. The No. 2 Caboose was retired from service in 1954, after 65 years of hard work.

Milwaukee Road No. 2 Caboose, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)-1-300px
Milwaukee Road No. 2 Caboose, National Railroad Museum, Photo by cjverb (2018)

Fun Train Fact #2:  Prior to dining cars, train workers cooked up meals inside the caboose using oil cans for pots and newspapers for table linens. Caboose turtle chowder was a particular favorite of Milwaukee Road’s No. 2. Today you can sip gourmet coffee and dine on pastries at Milwaukee Road’s former freight house in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. The old building was preserved and converted into a coffee house with nary an oil can or turtle in sight.

That wraps up Part 1 of our tour through the National Railroad Museum. Next week we’ll take a look at electric, steam, and wartime trains. Until then, have a fun and relaxing week!


Chicago Museum of Science & Industry

Milwaukee Road Historical Association

Museum Bites: Dazzling Deco

Museum Bites: Mother Road

National Railroad Museum


Travel Film Archive: Let’s Ride The Zephyr (1934)

Wikimedia Commons

Train Tracks, Photo Courtesy of Pixabay-2-100px Cover photo courtesy of Pixabay.

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