They rolled out the red carpet every night for customers boarding the train, which is how that popular phrase we all know first came into use. The 20th Century Limited streamlined train made its debut in 1902, and was soon advertised as “The Most Famous Train in the World“, travelling overnight between Grand Central Station and LaSalle Street Station in Chicago. Cutting the journey from 20 to 16 hours, travellers could spend an entire day in New York and make it back to Chicago for 9am the next day. A train for the “tycoons and stars”, regular passengers included Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Hope, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, Doris Day and J. P. Morgan. Its style was described as “spectacularly understated … suggesting exclusivity and sophistication”.
That art deco red carpet ran the length of a football field and the glamorous departure was comparable to boarding one of the great steamships of the early 20th century. Carnations were handed out to men upon arrival, and perfume and flowers for the ladies. “Getting the red carpet treatment” passed into our language from this memorable practice.
“Menus included caviar, filet mignon and lobster,” as The New York Social Diary describes it. “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.”
In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” saw Cary Grant and the seductive Eva Marie dining in the Century Club with views of the Hudson River in the background…
The entire train functioned like a private club. The dining car was actually named, “the Century Club”. Tailored perfectly to young executives and “new money,”, after the final evening meal was served, the white tablecloth linens would be replaced with rust-red linens and the car would become a nightclub known as “Café Century.”
With the streamliner craze in the 1930s, everything changed, and the New York Central was the first to begin dabbling in the new concep, it rebuilt and modernized heavyweight cars, recruiting distinguished industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.
But by the 1960s, 20th Century Limited’s heyday was over. The New York to Chicago corridor was one of the most hotly contested passenger markets east of the Mississippi. After losing its customer’s to the competing Broadway Limited, another premium passenger train which offered the same route from 1912 to 1995, the 20th Century took its last run in 1967.
In 2017, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the last run of the 20th Century Limited, a restoration company, Star Trek, organised an excursion taking participants on a leisurely ride up the Hudson River Valley along the same route in an original 1948 20th Century Limited Car. You can stay on the lookout for future excursions on their Facebook page.
Today, streamliner trains that oozed the elegance of old world travel are no more. Amtrak operates a very unromantic New York-Chicago train named the Lake Shore Limited, which takes twenty hours. Delays are to be expected.
The New York Times wrote that the 20th Century Limited ” … was known to railroad buffs for 65 years as the world’s greatest train.”