The 20th Century Limited

Featured image
Ready for departure in 1947 from Chicago's La Salle Street Station the opulent Twentieth Century is 16 hours from Grand Central Station, New York.


Have you wondered where the much-overused phrase “the red carpet treatment” originated?

It all started with the 20th Century Limited.

It was a “Magic Carpet” high speed overnight Pullman commute between New York and Chicago as pitched in this Time Magazine advertisement.

The “Century” was an express passenger train operated by the New York Central nightly from New York to Chicago. From 1938 until the last run in 1968, passengers walked down a crimson carpet to their waiting cars. This was only done for the departure from New York. Stretching from the observation car to the engine — the football field length rug was specially designed for the Century — thus, the “red carpet treatment” was born.

Travel time was less than sixteen hours each way between the two cities during its streamlined years.

If leaving from New York, you departed at 6 p.m. and arrived the next morning in Chicago at 8:45 a.m. Settling in for the evening, after boarding the Century in downtown Manhattan, you enjoyed cocktails in the observation car, dinner with views of the Hudson, a good night sleep and then with breakfast in bed or in the dining car. Dress was business formal with no room for baseball caps. Standing in line for security, enduring a long cab ride or enduring hours on the tarmac because of bad weather were not included in your first class Pullman fare.

The glamorous departure aboard New York Central’s 20th Century Limited was equal to a sailing on the Queen Mary, Liberte or United States. This was still the only way to “cross the pond” from New York to Europe into the 1950s and Pullman was the only way to travel overnight by train in America.

Henry Dreyfuss-designed the matchbook covers.

The gateway to the Century’s platform was peopled with passenger agents, Pullman conductors and NYC conductors. Porters helped passengers to board, waiters stood at attention in the dining car with chefs busily preparing dinner. Menus included caviar, filet mignon and lobster. Bartenders in the three club cars took orders for Manhattans, Scotch highballs and very dry Martinis. The train’s crew estimated that 50 per cent of the cocktails sold were consumed in private rooms and suites.

Known as the “train of tycoons,” the Century was similar to a commuter train for elite Chicagoans heading for Manhattan. Household names encompassing meatpacking to department stores — such as Robert R. McCormick, Sewell Avery, Marshall Field, Julius Rosenwald, Philip Armour and Walter Chrysler, Sr. — were mainstays.

The dining room stewards had notebooks filled with their particular meal and drink requests. One of them claimed he knew 75 per cent of the passengers and could call 15,000 people by their name. He knew that Marshall Field would order one martini but expected to find two in the shaker, Bing Crosby liked his wheat cakes piping hot at 6 a.m. and Robert R. McCormick wanted apple pie a la mode.

Passenger lists were maintained for each “sailing” of the Century. Bob Hope, Bette Davis or Doris Day might be aboard. But the Century was really the train for Chicago’s elite. The Wrigleys, Blairs, Bards, and Fields were “the Century regulars” and occupied the bedroom suites, compartments and drawing rooms.

Red Cap attendants at Grand Central Station are rolling out the red carpet for passengers boarding the all-Pullman streamliner for Chicago. The carpet was only used in New York from the late 1930s until the train’s end during the late 1960s.
Passengers checking their reservations on a Summer evening at New York’s Grand Central for the 6 PM departure. Pullman Conductors and New York Central Conductors check accommodations and extra fare tickets.
Passengers dine in the “Century Club” aboard the streamliner.
Pullman advertising the new 20th Century Limited.

The 20th Century Limited was a repository of the coming and goings — of the rich, tycoons and stars — their habits of dress or drinking, their minds and their manners. The Century was operated like a private club and the lengthy dining car aptly named the Century Club. To businessmen, the Century was a symbol of the immutable fulfillment of a scheduled pattern; to luxury travelers it was the last word in conservative opulence.

Debuting 1902 as the New York Central’s luxury train, the Century operated overnight between New York and Chicago. The streamliner lasted until the late 1960s and traveled west on the “water level route” alongside the Hudson River and the shores of Lake Erie. Century advertisements made much of the good night’s sleep passengers would have in their private Pullman rooms on the overnight. This contrasted with the steep mountain climbing passengers experienced on such rival roads as the Pennsylvania Railroad.

Drinks aboard the Century. The lounge car is crowded but comfortable as passengers meet and network. Much different from flying today where your major concern is arriving in one piece.
Dining Car on the Twentieth Century Limited. Built by the Pullman-Standard Car Manufacturing Company, with interior design by Henry Dreyfuss, the diner was divided into four distinctive dining sections, seating 64 persons at tables, a lounging ante-room and a steward’s office.
A dining car waiter serves cocktails to Chicago meatpacking executives head for New York before dinner. One of the gentlemen is accompanied by his wife. She would receive a complimentary corsage in the morning while the men would receive buttoners.
Chicago tycoons enjoy drinks in one of the club cars as the N.Y.Y and Pullman Conductors walk through. Over fifty percent of cocktails would be served to passengers in their private rooms for the overnight trip.
1939 prices included the 20th Century Dinner for $1.75 with Canape of Russian Caviar as a starter. Filet Mignon could be enjoyed for an extra sixty cents. Traditional American Apple Pie topped with N.Y.C. French Vanilla Ice Cream. In 1938 industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was commissioned by the New York Central to design the streamlined train sets in Art Deco style — he also designed the menu covers including the matchbook covers.
The table is set in the Century Club for dinner. Dreyfuss designed linen, silver and crockery is seen in this setting for a two-seat table.
Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest.” They are dining in the Century Club with views of the Hudson River in the background. They soon would head for Saint’s Pullman Drawing Room. Sleep would be easy since the Central’s route to Chicago was “water level” – along the Hudson and Lake Erie.

The Penn’s Broadway Limited was the Century’s chief Chicago bound competitor. Both trains wanted the carriage trade traffic. They spent thousands of advertising dollars annually going after the rich, celebrities and high-end business travelers. The trains were in a race to be the tops.

For along time, the Century won out. Passengers services included carnations for the men, perfume for women, and complimentary morning newspapers delivered to your rooms (from the Chicago Tribune to the NY Herald-Tribune — the New York Times was not on the list). Train secretaries, manicurists, barbers, gourmet dining and meal service in your private Pullman accommodations was de rigueur.

Drinks in the Club Car aboard the 20th Century.
The dining car steward, who was similar to the manager of a private club, takes a breakfast order from a Chicago tycoon along with a request for a copy of the Chicago Tribune in the morning after a good night’s sleep on the “water level route.”

In 1928, its peak year, it earned revenues of $10 million and was believed to be the most profitable train in the world. Also in 1928, Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker, who eventually became the first commissioner of NASCAR, raced the 20th Century Limited from New York to Chicago in an automobile, beating the train.

In 1938 industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss was commissioned by the New York Central to design the streamlined train sets in Art Deco style, with the locomotive and passenger cars rendered in blues and grays (the colors of the New York Central). The streamlined sets were inaugurated on June 15, 1938.

His design was probably the most famous American passenger train of all time.

Society matrons Mrs. Frank Vanderlip, Mrs. A. Barton Hepburn, Mrs. Harold Talbert, Dr. Alice Gregory and Mrs. Norman de R. Whitehouse are ready to leave Grand Central.
Madame Coco Chanel heads for Chicago druing the 1920s.
L. to r.: Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in Howard Hawk’s Twentieth Century 1934.; The first all room train is advertised by New York Central with the Henry Dreyfuss designed engines ready to roll in 1938 carrying the all-Pullman 20th Century Limited.
New York Central advertisement promoting the new dining car fleet on the late 1940s Century.
L. to r.: Rosalind Russell heads to the coast aboard the through Pullman car connecting with the Santa Fe Chief; Olivia DeHavilland arrives in New York with her Siamese Cat aboard the Century.

After the World War II, Dreyfuss designed a new train set, which was pulled by Diesel locomotives. General (soon to be President) Dwight D. Eisenhower ceremonially inaugurated the new set in 1948 and actress Beatrice Lilly christening the streamliner with a champagne bottle filled with water from the Hudson, Lake Erie and Michigan symbolizing the “water level route.”

The Century was also the setting for a Broadway musical entitled On the Twentieth Century, based on the 1932 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur stage play Twentieth Century, adapted as a film with Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in the lead roles. The train also figured prominently as a setting for major scenes in both Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and the Band Wagon starring Fred Astaire showing the through sleeping cars connecting with the Santa Fe Chief for Los Angeles. The train has been the subject of many books with Lucius Beebe’s 20th Century being one of the best.

Gloria Swanson waves farewell from the observation platform as the Century pulls out of Grand Central during the 1920s.
Clockwise from top left: Kim Novak, ready to leave aboard the Century, stands in front of the famous Henry Dreyfuss observation car; The Century barber shaves a passenger while speeding along the “Water Level Route” at 80 miles per hour; Breakfast is served in the Century Club during the 1940s by dining car waiter to Paulette Goddard; Train secretary with passenger while the Century telephone operator makes a call.
The 20th Century logo is housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

But by the late 1950s the train was in decline. Business travelers were taking the new jets and the Pullman Company was losing money. The Century added coaches, slumber coaches (a cheaper sleeping accommodations) and was no longer extra fare. Soon the Century lost its quality passengers to the Broadway Limited, which remained an all-Pullman train into the 1960s.

The Century made its final run on December 2, 1967. The half-filled train left Grand Central Terminal on track 34 for the last time. As always, carnations were given to men boarding the train, and perfume and flowers to the women. The next day, it straggled into LaSalle Street Station in Chicago 9 hours 50 minutes late due to a freight derailment near Conneaut, Ohio, necessitating a detour over the Nickel Plate (New York, Chicago and St. Louis) Railroad.

After the final run, the New York Times said that the Century ” … was known to railroad buffs for 65 years as the world’s greatest train.”

Lounge car on the 20th Century Limited during the 1920s. The USA was still suffering from Prohibition but it is obvious this passenger would be filling his Ginger Ale with bootleg Scotch.
Clockwise from above: Henry Dreyfuss designed the ultimate in transportation – the all room 20th Century Limited; No other train fired the imagination of the American public like New York Central’s 20th Century Limited. Its exclusive clientele and blistering schedule between New York and Chicago made it the stuff of legends for 65 years; These signs were posted at the end of every Pullman Car.
Pullman Porters shined shoes at night for passengers. They hoped for big tips.

The 20th Century Limited along with other great Pullman trains such as the Panama Limited, Broadway Limited, Sunset Limited, Chief and Super Chief, Golden State, Empire Builder, Florida Limited, Cities of Los Angeles or San Francisco and the California Zephyr are gone. The last vestiges of this style of transportation died out in the late 1960s when the Pullman Company called it quits and then Amtrak took over. The Century and these Pullman trains were first class travel at its best. In their heyday, they were always on time and lesser trains waited for them to pass. Something we will probably never see again in the USA.

Today, Amtrak operates a New York-Chicago train named the Lake Shore Limited. It takes twenty hours and rarely is on time.

Henry Dreyfuss, Lucius Beebe, Walter Chrysler, and Marshall Field would not approve.

Waiter seen in the dining car kitchen of the Century with cooks and chef seen in the background.
L. to r.: Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant in a Pullman Drawing Room aboard the 20th Century in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. This would have been the largest accommodation available aboard the famous train.; Passenger with Pullman maid who was also a manicurist. Only the finest trains carried Pullman maids.
The 1940’s 20th Century Limited leaves Chicago.
L. to r.: Pullman Porter snoozes at the end of the sleeping car corridor. Hours were long. The Pullman Company was the major employer of African-Americans and was not unionized until the late 1930s. Porters survived on tips and managed to send children through college.; Passengers walk down the Century red carpet followed by the Red Cap carrying their luggage.
Railroad workers watch the Century rush to New York.
Chicago Red Cap escorts passengers to their Pullman sleeping car on the Santa Fe Chief. They are heading to the “coast” having arrived in the morning aboard the 20th Century Limited.

Michael L. Grace is a writer living in San Francisco who chronicles the social history of travel on his web site:

Recent Posts