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Classic Passenger Cars: Restored and On the Rails

Beckoned by a Clickety-Clack Clarion, Private Train Buffs Revel in the Ultimate Ride
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

(continued from page 3)

Nowadays, Stillman Tidwell can be found aboard the 1922-vintage Cannon Ball, which her father, Dr. James Stillman, purchased to continue the family's New York to Texas rail journeys (he located the car through an ad in The Wall Street Journal). Stillman's acquisition coincided with a change in Amtrak's animal policy, which prohibited pets on the trains. After all, the family dogs still had to make the trip. She recalls a desire on her father's part "to turn the clock back to a wonderful era and provide for the pleasure of family and friends."

Stillman Tidwell explains that her family named their car Cannon Ball to honor the Wabash Railroad on which it once ran, as well as one of her father's favorite trains, the parlor car train known as the Cannon Ball that was the Long Island Rail Road's premier New York to Montauk express. She points with pride to the car's marquetry, and notes that the rich wood grain isn't wood at all. The deep tones result from techniques developed early in the century by the Pullman Co. to endow bare steel walls with the look of walnut, mahogany and English oak. At the time, stronger and safer steel cars were replacing older wooden rolling stock, but passengers apparently preferred the richly paneled interiors, and car builders were not about to abruptly depart from tradition. Cannon Ball is also equipped with a pair of "sections." Stillman Tidwell says that these curtained Pullman sleeping berths are identical to those that hid Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis as they fled south from the clutches of the Chicago mob in Some Like It Hot.

Private-varnish travelers get a sense of America that jet-setting travelers never do. Stillman Tidwell has traveled aboard Cannon Ball across the Painted Desert, through the Colorado Rockies and to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. She points out that New Iberia, Louisiana, is redolent of truckloads of red chili peppers destined to become Tabasco sauce--not a sensation experienced by airplane passengers. A favorite trip of hers is the five-hour shoreline run from New York to Boston, with Cannon Ball coupled to the rear of Amtrak's Mayflower express. She can be found mixing Bloody Marys for her friends or charter guests as the train curves high over the Hell Gate Bridge that links Queens with the Bronx. The Manhattan skyline provides the spectacular backdrop. Before the run along the beaches of Long Island Sound, the electric locomotives are exchanged for diesels at New Haven, Connecticut, where the overhead wires come to an end.

While the engine change is taking place, the smokers come out of the Amtrak coaches, wander back along the platform and tell us how jealous they are," says Stillman Tidwell. Cannon Ball boasts the traditional ashtray stand in its parlor room. And it's used. Whenever she "ties up at the bumper" in Boston's South Station, Stillman Tidwell restocks her car at South Station Concierge. The shop hand-rolls cigars on the premises.

The ride, after all, is what it's all about, whether for rail buffs or casual passengers seeking what one car owner describes as "relaxed privacy" along with their food, wine, smokes and scenery. Fred Bartoli recalls a journey with five business colleagues from Las Vegas to Washington, D.C., with the car's open platform "properly pointed" on the rear of Amtrak's Desert Wind to Chicago and the Capitol Limited beyond.

"P.V.s attract the attention of car inspectors," he observes. "They always seem to be under the impression that someone important--a rail executive or a celebrity--is aboard." The practical result, says Bartoli, is "no hard couplings."

Bartoli and his companions once enjoyed one of the country's prime scenic rail trips, the old Rio Grande "main line through the Rockies," which climbs eastward from the Salt Lake area to Soldier Summit and on through Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs before a spectacular descent into Denver. "On the tracks through the mountains, we were making 50 to 60 mph at most, so the open platform is quite comfortable," Bartoli recalls. "And since the locomotives were 17 cars ahead, it was surprisingly quiet. You could hear the rushing waters of the Colorado River in Glenwood Canyon and even hear the calls of the birds. And we traveled during October, when the aspen were starting to turn gold. Except for meals and cocktails, I spent the days outside on the rear platform--and the others on the car kept kidding me about it. But how close can you be to nature while experiencing such luxury? Certainly not when you're hiking."

Bartoli describes a thought that might occur to any passenger aboard a P.V. who's ever bought "Short Line" or "B&O" during a Monopoly game: "At night the track inspection lights are turned on, and you can enjoy the fantasy that it's your own railroad trailing out behind." *

Warren Kalbacker, a freelance writer living in New York City, has spent some 80 nights sleeping aboard railroad cars.

All Aboard
Those wishing to enter the world of private railroading should hook up with the following sources:

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