A Brief History of the 20th Century Railroad Club

Our Club was founded in 1971 by three Chicago teenagers to enable themselves and others to cultivate an appreciation for the history, lore and socio-economic importance of all facets of American passenger railroading.

They named their Club after the 20th Century Limited, the deluxe, all-sleeping car express train that operated between Chicago and New York from 1902 through 1967. Billed by the New York Central System as "The Greatest Train in the World," the Century was accepted by three generations of travelers as the epitome of American achievement in speed, safety, comfort and luxurious on-board service. World travelers compared it favorably to Europe’s legendary Orient Express. To this day, artists and decorators use the classic Art Deco styling and sophisticated grays, blues and silvers chosen by famed industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss when he styled the Century’s sleek new streamlined cars and bullet-nosed steam locomotive in 1938.

Something of the Century’s style rubbed off on our founders, and expressed itself in virtually every project they undertook for railroad enthusiasts in the Chicago area. Where most railfan clubs of the time were content to meet once a month over coffee to look at slides, movies and memorabilia, from the start the 20th Century Railroad Club combined history and artifacts with food, fun and railroad-style service.

The Club’s first public function, in the spring of 1971, was a tour of the old La Salle Street Station and the Santa Fe Railway’s Archer Avenue coach yards. Even then, guests were served a modest but stylish lunch in a Santa Fe dining car on layover between trips to the West Coast.

As the 1970s unfolded, the Club’s annual spring event grew to fill an entire weekend and attracted railfans from across the nation. Known as "RailFair," it featured luncheons, guest speakers, films, music and dance – even a theater party to see (what else?) a revival at the Goodman Theater of Ben Hecht’s and Charles MacArthur’s classic musical comedy, "On the 20th Century."

Most significant for the future of the Club, however, was its small but growing travel program. About 40 members and guests took a round trip to Milwaukee as part of RailFair weekend in 1973. The next year, as part of Railfair '74, a bigger group rode the Rock Island Lines’ Quad Cities Rocket to Rock Island, Illinois, staying overnight and returning the next morning. Club managers were beginning to develop experience with carriers, hotels and restaurants in learning how to move, lodge and feed substantial numbers of people in comfort and even some degree of luxury.

By 1976, the Club was ready to help celebrate our nation’s Bicentennial with a bold new venture. An entire eight-car train was rented from the Rock Island Lines, including a glass-domed dining car in which brunch and dinner were served to 350 passengers. On the point was Rock Island E-8 diesel locomotive no. 652, which Club members had painted in a Bicentennial color scheme as a gift to the bankrupt Rock Island railroad, following a nationwide contest from which the winning design was selected. No. 652 continued to operate in its Bicentennial paint scheme on Rock Island passenger trains until the railroad went out of business forever, and is now at a railroad museum.  A link to the Railfair '76 program is here.

In 1979, the Club brought together Amtrak and the Santa Fe Railway to produce an abbreviated – but spectacular – two-day and one-night recreation of the famed train of the movie stars, the Chicago-Los Angeles Super Chief. Sixty-five passengers paid $200 each for an overnight ride to Kansas City and return in three deluxe sleeping cars, a lounge car and a diner. All porters and waiters were former Super Chief employees, and all three meals cooked on board featured the same dishes served to the film stars, sports figures and gossip columnists who had made the Super Chief their rolling hotel between Chicago and Hollywood during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

By 1981, the Club had gained sufficient expertise in group rail travel to become a sponsor of chartered trains to the general public. Instead of soliciting railfans as riders, the Club put them to work as volunteer planners, managers and tour guides, using their expertise to make it easier for the traveling public to return to the rails after an absence of decades. The Club’s unique approach solved two problems at once: it channeled the railfans’ enthusiasm and energy into a productive, businesslike and service-oriented activity; and it made possible a series of pre-packaged, one-day rail excursions, under which a hesitant traveling public could experiment with the nation’s reviving train system without committing itself to long or expensive trips.

This program, which began in 1981 with the first of several runs of our Tulip Train to Holland, Michigan, was made possible largely by Amtrak, which had just completed its initial ten-year program to acquire new locomotives and passenger cars. For the first time in history, American travelers could be guaranteed a national fleet of state-of-the-art rail equipment, including all-electric heating and air-conditioning, air-spring suspension, and interiors which were fully carpeted and soundproofed.

Equally important, the railroads over which Amtrak’s trains operate were in the midst of the biggest track and roadbed improvement program in their history. Train speeds, ride quality and on-time performance all rose steadily throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Pleased with the public response to the first Tulip Train, which carried 884 passengers; and to a second train, the Popcorn Flyer, which operated in September of 1981 to Valparaiso, Indiana; the Club spent the winter of 1981-82 planning a year-round program of one-day excursion trains designed to help Chicago-area residents spend a pleasant Saturday or Sunday away from the city without using an automobile. The process involved these steps:

• Popular fairs, festivals and special events within 200 miles of Chicago were identified, and their organizers worked with us to provide our passengers as pleasurable an experience as possible.

• Amtrak sales and operating personnel were contacted, and train consists and schedules were designed to meet the needs of Chicago-area riders (early-morning departures, suburban stops, high speeds, arrival as close as possible to the special event, and a return to the city in time to connect with outbound commuter trains.

• Club members were trained to perform on-board service as Car Hosts. White uniform jackets were purchased for their use, and breast and shoulder patches reading "20th Century Railroad Club" and 20th Century Limited were applied. The practice of having all Car Hosts and Club officers wear a pink carnation on board our trains was begun.

• Privately-owned luxury railcars were leased in order to provide a deluxe class of service on selected trains.

Six special trains were operated in 1982. The Tulip Train ran in May; a train to Galesburg, Illinois’ "Railroad Days" festival operated in June; and the first special trains in more than a decade traveled to the Illinois State Fair, Wisconsin Dells and the Illinois-Michigan football game at Champaign. The season concluded in December with the longest excursion to date: a 1,056-mile round trip to the Liberty Bowl football game in Memphis. This specially-scheduled and routed train enabled nearly 400 Illini fans to see the last game coached by the late Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama. This trip was topped in 1986, when we operated the Super Bowl Shuttle to New Orleans for Chicago Bears fans.

A special chapter in our Club’s history began in the spring of 1985, when we joined with Chicago’s Commons Theater company to present "Murder on the 20th Century." Fifty passengers boarded luxurious vintage railcars at Chicago Union Station on Saturday afternoon, bound for Indianapolis. When they returned the next day, there were only 49… These "murder mystery trips" proved so popular we ran 25 of them over the next 18 months, plus 12 one-evening trips via chartered CTA trains. In the process, our Club received national attention, including a feature article in The Wall Street Journal and extensive coverage by the local news media.

In succeeding years, the Club continued its basic program of chartering trains from Amtrak to travel to the destinations mentioned above, while adding such new destinations as Galena, Illinois, for "Fall Colors" trains; Oshkosh, Wisconsin, via the Train to the Planes™ at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Fly-In Convention; Burlington, Iowa, for "Steamboat Days" and Hannibal, Missouri, for a Mark Twain Festival.

From time to time, our Club has operated steam-powered excursion trains – to Sterling and Decatur, Illinois; Fort Wayne and Lafayette, Indiana; Janesville and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Detroit. These trains were powered by Norfolk & Western class J no. 611 (on its first visit to Chicago) (July 1983 Fast Mail featuring the 611 here ) and by Nickel Plate no. 765. In August of 1988, we brought together the St. Louis Steam Train Association and a new regional railroad, Wisconsin Central Ltd., to run two trips "Up the Track to Fond Du Lac," Wisconsin, using a newly-restored steam locomotive, Frisco no. 1522, and vintage passenger cars. While steam-powered trains are especially challenging to operate, they are an exciting way to bring back to life a major part of railroad history.

In November of 1990, Club headquarters was relocated from the headhouse of the former Soo Line freight terminal to what one member dubbed our Skybox for Railfans, a 2,500-square-foot office and meeting space. From 100 feet above track level, our Skybox overlooks the hub of passenger railroading in Chicago, and offers a panoramic view of nearly all Amtrak and Metra movements through a wall of windows 40 feet wide by 8 feet high. Since a two-page, full-color spread illustrating our view appeared in Trains magazine, our Skybox has hosted visitors from all over the United States, Canada, Europe, and even Australia!

In September of 1994, 20th Century joined forces with Great Lakes Western Rail Tours and the Wisconsin Central Railroad to operate the Train to Save the Trolleys. This cooperative effort carried a total of 1,250 passengers on two 130-mile round trips, and raised over $30,000 to help the East Troy Electric Railroad Museum purchase the operations and right-of-way of the last electric-traction line in Wisconsin. In April of 1997, our Club again operated The Train to the Trolleys™, this time utilizing a Metra "commuter streamliner" for the first-ever "off-line" excursion use of that carrier’s equipment.

In 1996, we capped the celebration of our Club’s 25th anniversary by resuming operation of chartered Amtrak trains with a pair of day trips to the Country Fair in Galena, Illinois, on October 12 and 13. Still as popular as ever, our Galena Limited™ carried 1,900 passengers to Illinois’ favorite small town in comfort and style aboard 14 Amtrak Superliners and four luxurious, privately-owned railcars. We operated the Galena Limited again in 1997, ’98,’99 and 2000, with similar success.

In 1998, we also marked the 150th anniversary of the first passenger train to operate in Chicago by sponsoring the Pioneer Limited, the first public excursion train to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, using a "commuter streamliner" trainset chartered from Metra. And in 1999 and 2000, we operated chartered Metra trains to the East Troy Electric Railroad Museum in East Troy, WI, and to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union.

In 2003, we moved our club meetings to 600 W. Washington.

The Club is alive and well and growing! Our extensive group-travel program for our members and the public is more popular than ever. Throughout the year, we offer weekend getaways by rail, as well as low-cost day trips on weekends for train-watching and/or special events accessible by rail. We also offer Vacations with the Century – four- to seven-day trips by train and/or deluxe motorcoach to destinations all over North America. All of our trips feature visits to historical attractions and/or railroad-related activities. For example, on our "7 Trains in 7 Days" trip, passengers rode a different excursion or dinner train every day as their deluxe motorcoach traveled through Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.

We invite the public to sample our trips, members meetings and other activities before deciding to join our Club. All they need do is telephone our office at (312) 829-4500 (or visit our Web site at www.20thcentury.org) and request information. We’ll mail a copy of our 12-page monthly newsletter, The Fast Mail, a membership brochure and our Trip Catalog, free of cost or obligation.

Since 1971, the 20th Century Railroad Club has introduced or reacquainted nearly a hundred thousand people to the advantages and special pleasures of train travel. Many of our passengers have gone on to plan and enjoy their own trips on Amtrak and the many tourist and scenic railroads around the United States. We are very proud that the spirit of our namesake passenger train, the 20th Century Limited, lives on in the 20th Century Railroad Club’s total dedication to passenger satisfaction aboard the most civilized from of land transportation ever invented.