HUNTINGTON — Huntington attorney John Hankins, a long-time rail fan, has donated a plush private rail car to the Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Society (C&OHS).

Describing the rail car as “an important historical and interpretative piece for us,” Thomas W. Dixon Jr., the railroad society’s chairman and president emeritus, said it will go on display at the society’s Heritage Center in Clifton Forge, Virginia. “This donation will help bring our collection to a new level.”

“I’m very happy the car has found an appropriate permanent home,” Hankins said.

The car was built at the Pullman car works south of Chicago in 1924 for use by J.P. Morgan Jr. He was president of the J.P. Morgan banking house, made famous by his father, who died in 1913.

When it was built the car was assigned the name “Erie 400,” the Erie being one of the railroads Morgan had a financial interest in.

In their heyday, private railroad cars were the equivalent of today’s corporate jets.

“The era of the private rail car was in its twilight years when Morgan acquired the Erie 400, but some wealthy people still owned and used rail cars much as they did yachts,” Dixon said.

The Chesapeake & Ohio Railway acquired the Erie 400 in 1937 and used it as a business car until 1971 when it was sold to Hankins.

“Most of the heavyweight business cars used by the railroads were not built new for the railroad but purchased secondhand, as was the Erie 400, since private owners no longer wanted to use them in the changing transportation environment of the 1920s through the 1940s,” Dixon said.

On acquiring the Erie 400, the C&O designated it as its “Business Car No. 2.”

When the creation of Amtrak brought an end to the C&O’s passenger service, the difficulty and out-of-pocket costs of using business cars increased, prompting the railroads to pare down their fleets of business cars.

Today, CSX Transportation still has a few business cars but they are not used for everyday travel by the railroad’s officials.

On acquiring the Erie 400, the C&O dismantled its plush interior and refitted it with more spartan furnishings and decor.

When Hankins purchased the car from the C&O he entered into a joint venture with entrepreneur Robert Snow, who owned and operated Church Street Station, an elaborate restaurant and retail complex in Orlando, Florida. The car’s interior that had been installed by the C&O was ripped out and replaced with a decor redolent of the early days of luxury train travel.

Snow sold Church Street Station in 1989 and it later closed, Hankins said.

Dixon said the society plans to emphasize the car’s connection to the C&O by returning its interior to the decor it had when it served the railroad, although no timetable for that work has been set.

“An advantage for us,” he said, “is that the car is in very good physical condition and with a little work can be made available not only for display to our Heritage Center visitors, but as a special venue for rental, just as we do with our ‘Gadsby’s Tavern’ dining car.”

The elegant Erie 400 is 85 feet long and boasts an open platform at the rear, an observation lounge, four large bedroom suites, private baths, a large dining room, a full kitchen and crew quarters.

Hankins recalled making many rail trips aboard the Erie 400.

“Over a 15-year period we crisscrossed America and Canada, putting thousands of miles on it,” he said.

In recent years, the car was parked on a siding at the former C&O passenger station on 7th Avenue. It’s since departed for its new home in Clifton Forge.

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.

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