The Twentieth Century Limited
by Jim Herron
When I was young, I was lucky enough to travel to Chicago and back with my father on the New York Central crack passenger train called the “20th Century Limited.” It took the all-water route, flat with beautiful scenery, taking under 20 hours to reach Chicago from New York City. The trip took place in the early part of the 1950’s and I still remember it vividly. There were beautiful upholstered cars, a dining car, pullman sleepers and big gray diesels pulling the train out of Grand Central Station in New York. Going through the Hellgates and seeing all the hustle and bustle of passengers, the trainman and conductors walking to the train on a red carpet was the thrill of a lifetime for a little boy who loved trains.
The history of the 20th Century Limited goes back to the late 1890’s when the New York Central and the Pennsylvania railroads tried to best each other on the New York-Chicago run. The Pennsylvania Railroad train was called the “Broadway Limited” – running across Pennsylvania through the Alleghenies, Horseshoe Curve, Altoona, Pittsburgh and on to Chicago. The two trains met in the last fifteen miles of track and raced into Union Station (if they were on time!). Each claimed the best service, on-time records, price and luxury.
The competition between the Century and Broadway Limiteds became the most celebrated rivalry in the history of American railroading. They kept pace with each others in matters of service, speed and luxury. Competition between the two was keen, but not cut throat. Both considered their crack trains a source of pride, prestige and publicity.
Over the years, both the speed and amenities of the 20th Century were constantly improved. The first Century consisted of three sleepers, a diner and a library-buffet car. Later versions included cars with drawing rooms. The train became so popular that it was run in several sections, with the wooden cars being replaced by all steel between 1910 and 1912. By the mid-’20’s the train was being called a “national institution.” In the 1920’s the Atlantics were replaced by the Hudsons which hauled the 20th Century until they were replaced by diesels in the 1950’s. In 1938 the Dreyfuss Streamlined Hudson hauled the Century.
The 20th Century Limited was a great service and the inspiration for songs, plays, movies and radio shows. Unfortunately, due to automobiles, highways and airplanes, the service slowly went down hill after World War II. In 1957 day coaches were added to the 20th Century Limited, forever tarnishing the famous train’s glamorous image. It ran until 1967 when it was finally terminated.