Riding the rails in luxury

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Colorado and the West was built by the railroads, but as the region increased in population, trains transformed from a means of transport to a kind of travel to be enjoyed.

The “Life on Colorado Railroads: The American Passenger Car Era, 1930 to 1970” exhibit at the Colorado Railroad Museum, 17155 W. 44th Ave. in Golden, takes visitors on an in-depth tour of the era when passenger train travel was at its peak.

“It’s really exciting to have this new exhibit up,” said Donald Tallman, executive director of the museum. “This is the second exhibit in a three-part series on railroads, with the first being about the construction of the railroad.”

According to Lauren Giebler, curator of the museum, the modern American passenger car era began in the 1930s when railroad companies transitioned from steam to diesel locomotives, and changed the look of their trains in an effort to attract more passengers.

“Inspired by the Art Deco movement, railroads applied clean, unbroken lines, rounded corners, and gleaming metal bodies to trains and locomotive,” she said. “Projecting an image of speed and power, the new trains symbolized the modernization of America.”

Traveling on trains became a far more upscale affair for those who could afford it, with sleeping car porters, courier nurses and other people who specialized in making the travel experience as comfortable as possible being added to a railroad’s staff.

“In this era it was not just about the train, but how you traveled as a guest on the train,” Tallman said. “When you traveled the companies wanted to make sure you had a nice experience, and hired people to take care of you.”

The exhibit will feature photos of the new railroad staff, from porters, cooks and stewards to courier nurses, engineers and more.

It will also feature eyewitness testimonies collected by Giebler, including an Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (ATSF) Railway courier nurse and engineer and a Denver and Rio Grande Western (DRGW) Railroad yardman, among others.

As technology and design advanced, the trains became faster. In 1937, the ATSF’s diesel-electric Super Chief train shortened the travel time from Chicago to Los Angeles from 55 hours to just under 40.

To get a sense of the new train design that allowed for both speed and comfort, Giebler and a group of volunteers worked for two weeks fabricating a three-quarter sized Navajo round-end observation car complete with a sleeping berth.

Giebler added that this period was the zenith of railroading not only because of the advancements, but because of the employees’ experience. She said that strong wages, standardized working hours, health insurance, pensions, and respect from surrounding community members created a work environment in which employees would work for 30, 40, or even 50 years.

As Giebler worked on the exhibit, she said that her favorite thing about it was the light it shined on those who made the era possible.

“The Passenger Car Era is especially interesting because it is all about people,” she said. “The human connection is what draws people most to history.”

For more information about the exhibit, call 303-279-4591 or visit www.coloradorailroadmuseum.org.

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