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Open up any book about the "Golden Age" of railroading, and you will see them by the score: Photo after photo of the lavish observation cars of the great named trains; veritable rolling palaces bedecked in Victorian finery. These cars were photographed almost as often as the mighty steam locomotives that headed up the front of the trains, and looking at a few of these photos, you can immediately understand why they were so popular.

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These Victorian passengers on one of the Santa Fe's best trains prepare to depart
by having their photograph taken on the observation car.

Observation cars were the last cars on passenger trains, and were so named because they usually had large railed platforms at the rear where folks could sit and enjoy the passing scenery in the open air. They represented the pinnacle of luxury rail travel to those who could afford to ride in them and they were the focus of much of the photographer's art in the early part of the last century. Their opulence was difficult to deny.

Intrepid travelers would strike nonchalant poses on the observation deck before departures, sitting lazily on the decorative polished brass railings surrounding the platform. Often, hanging from the railing like a knight's herald was the lighted "drumhead" bearing the train's distinctive name. If these trains were luxury ocean liners, the observation deck would be the fantail.


In the 1920s, the observation car was still the best place to have a group portrait made.

If you were travelling by train in the early part of the 20th century, there was no better place or way to document the beginning of your journey than with a photo on the luxurious observation deck. Wealthy men of business and power; sports heroes of the era, movie stars and radio celebrities all took advantage of all that the observation car had to offer. To travel in one was to truly travel in style and grandeur.

When Walt Disney set about creating a beautiful period-correct set of passenger cars for his new Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad, he knew exactly what he wanted. There would be coaches for most passengers, of course; and bringing up the rear there would certainly be a properly accessorized observation car, with the requisite wrought iron and brass railing at the rear, topped by a striped awning. (Eventually this car, originally named Grand Canyon, was rebuilt into the lavish parlor car that rides the rails at Disneyland today: the Lilly Belle.)


This is the observation car of Retlaw 1, which eventually was rebuilt into the Lilly Belle.
Photo courtesy Michael Broggie

But tellingly, this was not Walt's favorite car. Another car had stolen Walt Disney's heart.

Disney--a farmer's son who rose to worldwide fame, the studio mogul who in the 1950s could afford the ticket to ride in utmost opulence, splendor and luxury aboard the observation car on his, or any other railroad--was smitten instead with the very first car on his new train, not the last. This was not the car of the celebrity or the rich or the famous; it was the car of the humble baggage man and the modest mail clerk. It was known simply as the "combine."

The combine. As the name suggests, the car was meant to be a combination of two types of cars; half of the car would feature standard coach seating, while the other half of the car would be devoted to luggage, baggage or mail. The Disneyland car was a faithful representation of the typical combine of the era, and we'll look a little more at the construction and details of the car later. But first, we need to understand why this lowly car, of all the others, was Walt Disney's favorite.


A typical combine of the 1890s, clearly showing the sliding baggage door to the right.

As most know, Walt Disney grew up around trains, and railroading was a significant influence on his life. His uncle, Mike Martin, was a Santa Fe engineer on the accommodation train running between Walt's hometown of Marceline, MO and Fort Madison. Walt wrote, "That was something to brag about to my schoolmates at a time when railroads loomed large in the scheme of things and steam engines were formidable and exciting."

When Walt turned 15, his father sold the newspaper route that Walt had worked, and so the young Disney needed to find employment. "I looked around for some way to earn money until high school reopened in the fall. My brother Roy, who had been employed by the Fred Harvey system as a news butcher on Santa Fe trains, selling magazines, peanuts, candy, apples, soft drinks, cigars, and so on, suggested that I apply for a similar job. I did so, and was hired for two months."

Walt Disney initially hired out to the Missouri Pacific Railroad, on commuter trains running from Kansas City to Jefferson City. Walt recalled his days on the railroad proudly: "I felt very important wearing a neat blue serge uniform with brass buttons, a peaked cap, and a shiny badge on my lapel. As the train rolled into one station after another, I stood beside the conductor on the car steps to enjoy the envious stares of youngsters waiting on the platform."


Walt Disney probably looked very much like
this young man in his news butcher uniform.

Walt's favorite run on the Missouri Pacific was the trip between Kansas City and Downs, Kansas. The trip took six hours, and the train stopped at every station along the line, sometimes switching boxcars along the way. As he intriguingly wrote, "During the journey I sometimes went to the baggage car and supplied the baggage man with cigars and chewing tobacco and then I'd climb over the tender into the engine cab to do the same for the engineer and fireman. They'd let me ride in the cab with them for a while -- and what a thrill that was."

Walt's railroad career didn't last long. "My railroad career was brief, exciting and unprofitable," he later wrote. But railroading remained in his blood.

It was Walt's fond remembrances of his pleasant times riding in the baggage cars as a wide-eyed and nave 15 year old news butcher that led to his affection for the same type of car he was building for the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Sure, Walt Disney could have had his own private car on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad; something a man of his stature and celebrity certainly deserved. But he did not see it that way.

Instead, the lowly, modest combine--and not the glorious, celebrated observation car--was Walt Disney's favorite car; a car where the son of humble Midwestern stock could relive his memories of the simple, care-free days of his youth as a proud news butcher; a time before the stress and headaches associated with heading a sprawling movie studio, a time when he was part of the Great American Adventure known as railroading.

Continued in Part II...

Steve DeGaetano is author of Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! Steve's latest book, the history of Disneyland's newest locomotive, the Ward Kimball, is now available. You can read more about From Plantation to Theme Park, the Story of Disneyland Railroad Locomotive No. 5, the Ward Kimball, and place an order for it, by using this link.

2009 Steve DeGaetano


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