Fifty years ago this weekend, they held funerals on many of the rails across America.
The Santa Fe Super Chief, the Norfolk & Western’s Wabash Cannon Ball, Union Pacific’s City of Los Angeles, the Southern Railway’s Nancy Hanks, the Burlington Northern Zephyr, the Baltimore & Ohio Capitol Limited, and arguably the greatest of them all, the Illinois Central’s Panama Limited, were among the nearly 180 U.S. passenger train routes to pass into history on April 30, 1971.
Amtrak took over the next day with a pared-down system that included 184 routes from among the 366 that existed before.
Champaign, once the home of evocative-sounding long-haul routes including the Panama Limited, City of Miami, Seminole, Louisiane and Magnolia Star, eventually retained only the City of New Orleans and state-supported trains between Chicago and Carbondale. St. Louis, an even bigger railroad hub, lost seven of the 11 daily trains that used to serve it.
The front page of the May 1, 1971, News-Gazette carried a photo of the last IC Panama Limited to run though Champaign. It left town at 7:30 p.m. — a little late, the photo caption said — and it was the “end of an era” that had begun in 1911.
That Panama was a luxurious train with a fantastic history. It was discontinued in May 1932 because of the Great Depression but was revived two years later with the addition of newly appointed air-conditioned cars. By 1942, the train boasted twin dining cars, full-size club cars and room-sized sleeping compartments. It made the 921-mile Chicago-to-New Orleans run in 21 hours.
Even as late as 1965, the “Panama” was “a passenger’s delight,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
“The Panama is one of the few all-Pullman, all room trains left on this continent,” the Tribune said. “The all-room classification means that there are no upper or lower berths — only enclosed private space like roomettes or bedrooms for lone travelers, or bedrooms, compartments or drawing rooms for couples and families.
“The Panama Limited is the pride of the Illinois Central’s passenger fleet. Nothing delays the orange, brown and gold streamliner as it rolls through the night on its fast schedule.”
At that time, it made the run in 16.5 hours, reaching speeds of 100 mph between Champaign and Centralia.
Dining on the train was like feasting at a four-star restaurant with entrees that included prime rib, pork chops, broiled shad roe and grilled lobster tail.
Appetizers included either shrimp or a crab finger cocktail “drenched in Illinois Central sauce.”
“The King’s Dinner” special, including a drink, appetizers, a fish course, a grilled steak with mushrooms, potato, vegetables and bread was $9.85 (about $83 in today’s dollars).
The fare for the entire trip was $36.29 ($306 today), and an additional $28.45 ($240) for a bedroom for two. (Today, Amtrak’s Chicago-to-New Orleans trip can cost $132 plus $632 for a family bedroom. And it takes nearly 20 hours).
Wayne Johnston, president of the IC — who was born in Urbana and graduated from the University of Illinois — called the Panama “the standard bearer of the Illinois Central fleet. It’s a goodwill builder for the railroad and keeps our name before the public.”
Unfortunately, Johnston died two years later, and the demise of the IC and the Panama Limited began.
As Mattoon newspaper editor Ralph Closson wrote in 1970, “there has been a very definite and drastic cut in the services offered passengers” on the Panama. The posh dining car was gone, as were club and parlor cars, the valets and the barbershops. Coach cars were dirty, he wrote, as were depots.
A year later, the golden era of the passenger railroad was over.
The IC provided plastic glasses of Champagne for those who boarded the last Panama in Chicago. A few passengers broke into a chorus of “Auld Lang Syne.” By the time the train arrived in New Orleans the next morning, Amtrak had taken over the IC’s passenger service.
In Nebraska, a group planned a “great train robbery” and gave certificates to passengers indicating they were victims. A group of Macon County schoolchildren took their first — and last — ride on the Wabash Cannon Ball on a short trip between Taylorville and Decatur. The train, which had begun in St. Louis, continued on to Detroit. A wake was held at Chicago’s Dearborn Station for the Santa Fe Super Chief.
And J.F. Scott, who had served as a club-car waiter on the Panama Limited, lamented the loss of great railroad service.
“I remember the weddings and birthday parties. We used to serve Champagne at them too,” he said. “I worked at birthday parties for the Dodge family from Detroit and the Busches (of St. Louis). There were so many of those parties, and they were always good.”
C.G. Gibson of Chicago, who said he invented the $9.85 “King’s Dinner” on the Panama, joined the mourning.
“This was one of the best trains in the world,” he said. “It hurts me that it’s going. It’s all over now.”