Slowly and gently, the steam-powered passenger train drifts to a halt at the
imposing brick station. The engine's bell has ceased its clanging, and the
locomotive hisses and groans, anxious to continue its journey. Passengers scurry
off the trains with loved ones in tow, while excited others clamber on board to
grab a place on the hard wooden seats in the crowded coach.
After calmly presenting your specially-engraved ticket to the blue-vested
conductor on the station platform, however, you are cordially escorted to the
rear of the train, to a deep burgundy-colored car, varnished to a high gloss,
with bright red and dark green trim. The conductor fishes around embarrassingly
in his vest pocket, but eventually he draws out a shiny brass key on a round
ring. Inserting the key into the keyhole below the polished brass doorknob of
the car, the conductor turns it once, and then turns the knob. Once the door is
open, you climb the car's steps, the conductor lending gentle assistance at your
elbow. Your fellow passengers in the penultimate car look on enviously as you
stand on the car's platform. Then you cross the threshold and into the car. As
the conductor shuts the door behind you, passengers sitting nearby in the
adjacent coach can see what's written on the brass plate affixed to the bright
red door panel: Lilly Belle.
This is her story.
To begin, we really should have some sort of historical context with which to
view the Lilly Belle, and to understand private cars, we should know
something about them. George Mortimer Pullman did not invent the idea of
luxurious rail travel, but he certainly perfected it. Known more for
improvements to the sleeping car, in the late 19th century his Pullman Palace
Car Company also built hundreds of private cars during the great age of trains.
Observation car, parlor car, private car. What's the difference between all
these conveyances? They were all variations on a theme: That of showcasing all
that a railroad had to offer to its most influential passengers. Far from being
least, these cars were the last ones in a passenger train, bringing up the rear
as cabooses did on freight trains.
Riding in style on the Southern
Pacific's Sunset Limited
at the turn of the 19th century. Love the hats.
Generally, "observation" cars referred to the car placed on the tail end of a
passenger train. At the turn of the 19th century, observation cars generally
featured large rear windows where passengers could watch the passing scenery.
Before the advent of the modern streamline enclosed tail car in the 1930s, the
typical rear car's most striking and discernable feature, however, was an
elaborate wrought-iron or brass railing, surrounding an open rear deck where
elegantly-dressed ladies and tuxedoed gentlemen passengers could sip Champagne
or a chilled ale while sitting on wicker chairs and watching the countryside and
tracks pass by in a mesmerizing blur.
What the view looked like from the platform. The conductor
was there to tend to the passengers' every need.
Sometimes these cars were also called "parlor" cars, reflecting the typical
19th century parlor that graced many homes of the era, where folks could "sit a
spell" and enjoy one another's company. Parlor cars, however, did not
necessarily include the rear deck, and could sometimes be found mid-train.
For sheer luxury and glamour, however, the "private" rail car was the most
opulent way for men of power and wealth to travel.