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C&O Historian Details History Of Railway's Passenger Trains

Oct. 29, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

Thomas W. Dixon Jr. has likely forgotten more about the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway than most rail fans will ever know.

As the founder and president emeritus of the C&O Historical Society, Dixon has spent a lifetime studying the railroad, the direct predecessor of today's giant CSX Transportation. Since he edited the first issue of the society's magazine in 1969, it's become the undisputed authority on all things C&O.

Not surprisingly, Dixon has shared his expertise in a number of books over the years. Now his latest, "Chesapeake & Ohio Passenger Service, 1947-1871," details the whole history of the railway's passenger train service, beginning with the Virginia Central (a C&O predecessor) in the 1840s and ending with Amtrak's takeover of the nation's passenger trains in 1971.

It's a history in which the city of Huntington played an important role, beginning with rail tycoon Collis P. Huntington's 1871 founding of the town as an ideal spot to transfer passengers and cargo between the C&O and the steamboats that then traveled the Ohio. Over the decades, the C&O's passenger trains would be part of the daily fabric of life in Huntington.

As Dixon notes, the C&O derived most of its revenues from hauling coal. Even so, it lavished considerable attention (and money) on its passenger operations. In 1930, when it introduced a new flagship train, the Sportsman, the new train visited 20 cities (including Huntington) on an exhibition run before going into service. More than 100,000 people toured the train during its preview tour.

The Sportsman was by no means the C&O's first high-class passenger train. That honor goes to the Fast Flying Virginian, which made its first run in 1889. The FFV proved highly popular with riders and would continue as part of the C&O's passenger operation until 1968.

Of all the C&O's passenger trains, the George Washington is surely the best remembered. The C&O's press people dubbed it "the most wonderful train in the world."

"And maybe it was," Dixon says. "The aura of the magnificent, the aristocratic, the special, the extra, persisted throughout the life of this great train. It was unquestionably one of the top name trains in America."

The train, which linked Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., via Huntington, debuted in 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington's birth. The always-thrifty C&O ordered no new cars for "The George," as the train came to be called. Instead, older cars were renovated for their new role. But in a major innovation, the entire train was air-conditioned, an improvement that was enthusiastically welcomed by the traveling public.

From a low point of fewer than a million passengers in the Depression year of 1932, the C&O's traffic began a slow but steady rebound, thanks in large measure to the appeal of air-conditioning and a boost from travel to the popular New York World's Fair of 1939. Still, the railroad had to work hard at drumming up passenger business. That would change virtually overnight in late 1941 when America entered World War II, which saw the C&O move troops by the thousands.

The flamboyant Robert R. Young, who became the C&O's chairman in 1942, envisioned a huge public demand for rail travel after the war. He even ordered ultra-modern cars for a grand new train, the Chessie, that would link Cincinnati and Washington. But Young hadn't anticipated the rapidly escalating competition posed by the airlines and the nation's growing highway system. With passenger rail traffic melting away, the Chessie never ran, and most of the cars built for it were sold off to other railroads even before they were delivered.

Young was brash, even arrogant and absolutely determined to shake up the rail industry. He introduced a number of innovations to the C&O passenger service, including a "No Tipping" policy, airline-style hostesses, the use of credit cards and even on-board movies. Despite those efforts, however, passenger traffic continued to decline as travelers abandoned trains, turning instead to air and highway travel.

With other railroads experiencing the same huge declines, Congress stepped in and created Amtrak, giving it the responsibility of taking over the nation's money-losing passenger trains. May 1, 1971 was set as the day for Amtrak to begin operation.

And so the eastbound George Washington was still a C&O train when it pulled into the Huntington depot on the evening of April 30, 1971. Shortly later, when it pulled out and headed toward Charleston, midnight arrived and the era of C&O passenger service ended. The train continued on, but it was now an Amtrak train.

"Chesapeake & Ohio Passenger Service, 1847-1971" ($34.95) can be ordered from the C&O Historical Society at 1-800-453-2647 or www.chessieshop.com.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history, including "The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway" (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99).

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