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Karen Dinsmore
Memories of a NYC RR Train Girl

The Perks of the NYC Trains

When I was about to board a New York Central passenger train I would approach a coach and the conductor would ask where I was going. If I hadn't gone far enough he would say the next car up or two cars up. If I was at the right car he put my suitcase on and as he helped me up the steps he told me to go to the left or right. I first stepped on a square stool as he said "Watch Your Step" and then was guided upon the first step by the hand of the conductor. I was always the first to get on as I was the youngest and early on I took his advice literally and watched each step so closely I ran into a lady who had lingered at the top of the steps. My dad told me I needed to look out for people when I went up the steps and I told him I couldn't do that and watch the steps at the same time. He then explained to me that constantly watching the steps was not what the conductor meant.

Once I was at the top of the steps, the conductor guided the next member of my family and then two of us would generally turn left and go through the door of the car into a narrow hallway about three feet wide past the plush women's rest room to the right and a large window to the left and a drinking fountain just beyond it below a beautiful oil painting above it before the first set of seats. The drinking fountain was a tiny faucet in the wall with a button at the top. You pulled a small triangular cup about 3 inches high from the dispenser and pushed the button to fill the cup. I usually had one cup full on the spot as the cup only held about two gulps and then refilled to take one back to my seat. Getting to a seat with a triangular drinking cup full of water when the train was swinging back and forth was a challenge. I got better at it with practice so my mother could expect at least one good gulp by the time I was ten and a full cup by my teens. The seats were usually a beautiful teal blue and each had a crisp white cotton head rest attached at the top of the seat. There was a two inch silver slot at the back of the top of the seat for the conductor to slip a ticket that identified your destination. He would remove it just before you got off. The seat would recline a small bit to rest or a lot if you wanted to sleep. The walls of the train were beautiful and there were lights above to turn on or off and shades at the large windows to pull up or down.

I loved the women's rest rooms as they were so plush. When you entered to the right was a dressing table with large mirror and bench to sit on for putting on makeup or doing nails and to the left was a long seat a person could rest on if they were sick or a person could use to change diapers or sit on to breast feed a baby. Straight ahead were double sinks with large mirrors and lights and to the far right was the toilet area with a door. It was similar to what is in airplanes and buses today without the sink so you had room to maneuver. There was a sign not to flush when standing at a station. Women would apply lipstick before going to the dinner and then again after dinner. They all checked to see if their seams were straight before they departed as women always wore hose in the 40's and 50's to travel. It was the era of dressing up and women simply didn't wear pants on trains. Teenage girls were beginning to wear Levis in the 50's but never to school or to travel. I got my first pair in a men's department in 1952 as ladies departments didn't carry them yet. In the 60's old habits changed quickly and it wasn't uncommon to see young women in pants on trains especially if they had small children.

The cars of the other railroads were similar and with most you could flip the seat to turn it the opposite direction so you could face someone. Most of the time the trains I rode were made up of black cars but with the NYC RR out of Chicago you later saw a couple silver Pullman cars and possibly a diner or Club Car and the same with the Santa Fe and other railroads out west. The California Zephyr was one exception as it was made up of all shiny silver cars including a few vista dome cars. It was a treat to sit in the vista dome cars in early sunrise or sunset as the views were incredible. However in the middle of the day in the summer the glare from the sun was so bad in some seats you needed sun glasses and when we were going through the mountains at night it really got cold. The rest rooms were in the middle of the vista dome cars and a stairway to the side of the rest room led up to the vista dome area of about 24 seats. Click for larger view In 1968 I read that they were going to retire the California Zephyr. I loved riding in the vitsa dome cars and wanted one more opportunity plus I wanted my girls to have a chance to ride it so we planned a trip from Lincoln to Denver. I'm not to sure the girls watched much scenery but they had a ball walking up and down those stairs to the vista dome and playing on the huge back seat.

On occasion when we went to St. Louis ours was the last car. I particular remember it once when we rode the Wabash RR. Being in the last car was an interesting experience as you could look out the back and watch hundreds of telephone poles and railroad ties disappear behind you in a minute. It was a bit scary when you crossed the Mississippi or the Wabash and the river was high. Railroads often were built through the less desirable areas of towns and seeing so much poverty was very unsettling. As a child I was in shock as we went through miles and miles of poverty areas as we approached downtown Chicago. I had never seen anything like that before. Mexico seemed to be an entire country of poverty as we passed an endless array of adobe huts out in the middle of nowhere hardly fit for habitation. The only prosperous looking thing around would be the village church. The grandeur of the huge cathedral in Mexico City was beyond words and after seeing so much poverty at every turn it seemed out of place. I grew up being taught that it is better to give than to receive but it was in the context of helping the less fortunate, not taking the little they had. I went back to Mexico in the 80's and the begging by children was just as overwhelming.


Photo Credit:
Dome Car 1950 National Geographic Ad
Lincoln Nebraska - Karen's 3 oldest prepare to board the train - Karen Dinsmore Photo.

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