RR Schedules Reveal an Amazing Lost World

Lee Witten

Lee Witten, Union Station’s archivist, had a friend in Seattle, Roy Thompson, who apparently collected railroad schedules. When Roy died his son, Rhude Thompson, who lives in Hawaii, got the job of clearing out his dad’s stuff.

So Tuesday morning Lee opened up a box Rhude sent and poured out the most amazing treasures. Dozens of old railroad schedules.

They’re from every conceivable railroad, going to every conceivable place. Back in the 30s, 40s and 50s you could go to Ogden’s Union Station and buy a ticket to anywhere, and these schedules let you chart the way.

This was when travel was fun, too.

A few of the dozens

You didn’t start a trip by going to the airport, having a rude/bored federal security guard feel you up and then jamming you into flight 32 to Pahokee. No, you went to the station, a grand hall much like a cathedral,  where porters tipped their hats and conductors waved you to the platform. You stepped onto the Great Northern’s “Empire Builder” express and settled back in comfort in a seat that had legroom. You dined on linen and enjoyed scenery going by.

Many of these schedules emphasize the pleasure of the journey, the elegance of the dining and the comfort of the cars. Shouldn’t travel be that way?

Note blacks are all servers

But those days are long gone. My compatriot up here in the archive just told me of his 24-hour effort to fly out of Dallas last week…two flights cancelled, endless standby lines and long waits on phones to get someone, anyone, to give you hope you might see home again some day.

Travel guides like these were useful in other ways than just telling where you were going. Some offered tourist highlights, scenic places to watch for or visit.

A student of history or sociology would find an interesting study in what people expected out of a corporation providing them service. Cultural and social issues show up too — for example, the only black people you will find anywhere in these are working as food servers, baggage handlers or the like.

The days of elegant travel are never coming back, I guess, so it’s especially important we save these timetables. Someday we’ll show our kids where they could go, and how they could get there, and not have to feel like cattle on the way.