Sunday, July 8, 2012

Another landmark gone

The blog Blueprint: Chicago, notes the passing of another bit of Chicago history, the Santa Fe sign that adorned Daniel Burnham's Railway Exchange (later simply known as the Santa Fe) Building at Michigan and Jackson. The sign harkened back to the days when this city was the transportation hub of the nation, to the days when rails ruled supreme.

When I was a kid, there were six major passenger rail terminals in Downtown Chicago. One Sunday back in the sixties with nothing better to do, my father and I visited them all.

The following are links to images of all six:
After decades of losing money, the private railroad companies ceased operating passenger trains in the late 1960s. The responsibility for carrying on long distance passenger train service in the United States fell on the government's shoulders, marking the beginning of Amtrak. Gone were the days of the great luxury trains, Amtrak would become a bare-bones, few frills operation. Along those lines, Amtrak accomplished what the big time planners including Daniel Burnham never could, consolidate all of Chicago's long distance rail operations into one terminal, Union Station. Northwestern and the LaSalle Street Stations continued to serve commuter trains which would remain operated by private companies for several more years. Dearborn, Illinois Central and Grand Central Stations all were put out of service. Dearborn was converted into a mixed use structure as it remains today, while the other two were demolished in early seventies. Old LaSalle Street and Northwestern Stations lasted into the 80s when they both were replaced by modern skyscrapers. Of all the stations listed above, only the headhouse of Union Station with its magnificent waiting room, remains as it was orginally intended.

Here's a view of the interior of LaSalle Street Station in a scene from one of my all time favorite movies, Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest:

It's interesting given how unremarkable this space is after its 1950s era remodeling, that Hitchcock took the trouble to film on location there rather than using the much more beautiful Union Station, or simply shooting the scene in a studio back in Hollywood. I can think of lots of reasons: the cramped, confining space at LaSalle in comparison to the great open space of New York's Grand Central Terminal where the protagonists boarded their train, contributes to the tension between the two characters, Eve Kendall and Roger Thornhill. Just as likely is that Hitchcock, ever the stickler for detail including continuity, filmed there because LaSalle Street Station was the actual Chicago terminus for the storied New York Central 20th Century Limited, one of the greatest of all passenger trains. Earlier in the film you see Cary Grant walking over the red carpet that led Chicago bound passengers to that very special train on the concourse of Grand Central.

As is the case today, back in the golden era of railroads, there was no such thing as a coast to coast passenger train. If you wanted to travel from New York to California, you would have to switch trains in Chicago. You could have booked a ride on the Broadway Limited, Pennsylvania Railroad's  Pullman equipped luxury train from New York to Union Station, then hopped aboard one of any number of California bound trains out of the same station. But the choice of the fancy people, movie stars and the like, was the 20th Century Limited, where you would disembark as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint did at La Salle Street Station around 9AM, spend some quality time in Chicago, (in the movie the time they spent here would be considered anything but quality), then in the evening hop on over to Dearborn Street Station and climb aboard the great Super Chief, the all Pullman luxury liner owned and operated by the Santa Fe, bound for Los Angeles. 

The railroads spared no expense in making the great trains great, their accommodations were comparable to those of ocean liners and luxury hotels. These trains were designed by the most famous industrial designers of the day. In the late thirties, Henry Dreyfus completely reworked the design of the train sets of the 20th Century Limited including decking out New York Central's Hudson steam locomotives in steamlined cladding. Those trains remain quintessential symbols of Art Deco elegance. Raymond Loewy did much the same for the trains of the Pennsylvania RR. Perhaps the most beautiful of all belonged to the Santa Fe. Sterling McDonald was responsible for designing the interior of the Super Chief, employing Native American motifs and colors. The real signature of Santa Fe trains however was the design of the General Motors Diesel EMD E series locomotives, which live on today in countless model railroad sets. The famous Santa Fe red and silver "Warbonnet" paint scheme was the brainchild of GM artist Leland Knickerbocker.

Here's a photograph from the 1940s by Jack Delano of a Chicago bound Super Chief making a scheduled stop in Albuquerque. At this point in the journey, passengers could disembark and purchase souvenirs made by local Native Americans.

Hauling passengers was never the primary source of revenue for the railroads, passenger service's chief benefit to the railroads was public relations and advertising. Unlike the other great routes mentioned above, Santa Fe continued to operate the Super Chief until the very end of private control of passenger rail in this country. So associated was the name Super Chief with its parent company, that Santa Fe sued Amtrak to prevent it from using the moniker for its replacement Chicago to LA route, feeling that the service aboard the government run railway did not live up to the standards it set during its forty odd years of operation.

There of course are still railroads in this country; their main purpose remains, as it always has been, to haul freight. There are far fewer of them than there once were, all of them have merged into giant corporations. Santa Fe merged with Burlington which years before merged with the Northern Pacific Railway. The name of the current company is not surprisingly an alphabet soup: BNSF. Has quite the ring to it doesn't it?

Amtrak still exists today but is constantly on the verge of decimation if not all out elimination. On the other hand, there is a move afoot to bring this country into the 21st Century by introducing high speed rail service on a large scale. Naturally it is a highly controversial plan fraught with much risk. While I was searching for photographs of the old Chicago Grand Central Station, I found this site which features a proposal to rebuild the glorious old station as a high speed rail hub. After all these years, the site is still unoccupied. I haven't had the time to study the plan carefully but it looks intriguing. I've stated in this space before my support of high speed rail and its importance to the future of this country. This proposal looks backwards and forwards at the same time, something I find quite satisfying.

As for the removal of the Santa Fe sign, well business is business and I suppose it makes little sense to advertise a company that no longer exists. Even though I never got to travel aboard the Super Chief, I did manage to see it depart from Dearborn Street Station a few times. I fondly remember those gorgeous red and silver engines that my beloved Lionels were modeled upon, pulling the train that would soon ride into oblivion. Yes is was comforting to see that sign every day and remembering something that was very special. I wonder when years from now, they remove the sign they're about to put up which will advertise Motorola, if folks will wistfully remember the glorious days of the cell phone.

Somehow I doubt it.

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