Truck Trend Legends: The Super Chief
The Train of the Stars
The Super Chief could only have existed in a certain place and time. That place was the United States, and that time was the middle of the 20th century, before flying became the usual method of traveling across the continent.
Back then, the Super Chief was known as “The Train of the Stars” because it was the quickest way to go between Los Angeles and Chicago. The rich and famous would make it part of their journey to or from New York City. Famous names like Bing Crosby, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Ella Fitzgerald chose the Super Chief because of its five-star service and high-speed travel. Frank Sinatra would be drinking in the Pleasure Dome bar until dawn. The dining car served thick steaks and caviar. Diners enjoyed silverware and fine linen. There was even a barbershop on board.
The Super Chief was the first diesel-powered, all-Pullman (ultra-luxurious) sleeping car train in the country. Before the Super, there was a regular Chief that could do the same trip in 55 hours. And there was competition from the Union Pacific’s (UP) City of Los Angeles, which also ran between the same destinations, but the UP train wasn’t direct.
If a passenger’s journey originated in New York, they would be booked into a Pullman car on either the 20th Century Limited or the Broadway Limited. From then on, they wouldn’t have to change carriages. The Super Chief locomotive was connected up at Dearborn Station in Chicago, and 39 hours and 45 minutes later, that passenger would step down onto a platform in Union Station (a still-gorgeous example of Art Deco architecture) in downtown Los Angeles.
As well as being the choice of the stars, the Super Chief was a star itself; an archetypal American train that embodied the romance of riding the rails. It was the jewel in the crown of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (AT&SF) railroad company. Remember, railways were the first arteries to stretch across the nation. Oddly enough, the AT&SF line didn’t go as far as Santa Fe.
The Super Chief made its inaugural journey on May 12, 1936. To the society of the time, it must have been as awe-inspiring as the supersonic Concorde jetliner was to a future generation. The locomotive’s red and yellow colors streamed into cars clad in fluted stainless steel as the train whipped through the Kansas prairies, encroached on Colorado, then crossed New Mexico and Arizona before hitting California. It started out as a weekly service, then twice weekly, eventually becoming daily. Most of the stops were for service, taking on fresh supplies, etc. A stop at Pasadena was for Hollywood celebrities to get on board, away from the hoi polloi.
The Super Chief, of course, has many references to Native American culture, not least of which is its name. Then there’s the design on the locomotive’s nose (known as the war bonnet), which was meant to evoke a ceremonial headdress with feathers flowing out to either side. The man behind this was the gloriously named Leland Knickerbocker.
The cars’ interiors had Native American-inspired themes and color schemes. Take the Turquoise Room, for example, which was renowned for its lavish dinner parties. Sterling McDonald designed these. He also brought in exotic woods like ebony and bubinga.
The locomotive had two Winton 201 diesel engines, sourced from General Motors’ Electro-Motive Corporation (based in Illinois), for a combined output of 3,600 hp. Officially known as #1A and #1B, they were more commonly referred to as “Amos and Andy”—a reference to characters in a popular radio comedy show of the time. These engines could run for continuous stretches of 1,200 miles, and the train could reach 112 mph.
Once the ’60s came, replete with more reliable and accessible air transport and people buying their own automobiles in greater numbers, the railway industry in general took a downturn. The Super Chief’s last official run was on April 30, 1971, as Amtrak took over from AT&SF. After a couple of years of falling standards, Santa Fe (successor to the AT&SF) eventually ordered Amtrak to stop using the Super Chief name. After all, an image like this should never be tarnished.