February 2012 Archives

The Gentlemen's Bar Car

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After I graduated from high school, I attended the University of Massachusetts in Boston. I used to take the New Haven Railroad from my hometown of Mansfield to Back Bay Station. Several of my friends from high school went to Northeastern University and other schools, and we used to play bid whist on the train ride. This meant reversing some of the seats so that we could sit opposite each other. As I recall, the cars were old and dirty. When the conductor passed from car to car, sometimes we'd get hit with a blast of cold wind, rain or snow.   Frequently, there was no heat!   I remember one of my friends telling me there was a snack car on one of the trains going home. Sometimes we'd get soda or coffee and a sandwich. The car had a bar counter on one side, and tables and chairs on the other. It was kind of a treat!

barcar.jpg

           COURTESY:     Shutter  Stock

 

A few years ago, one of the Oral History interviewers asked me to do some research on the well-known bar car, which became something of a club for Greenwich commuters during the 1950s or so. This intrigued me, since I had a history of riding railcars earlier. This turned out to be a very interesting assignment!  I found an Oral History transcript, which had a lot of information.The story starts in the 1950-1960 time frame. Many people from back country took the train into the city. One of these people did a favor for the President or another official of the railroad. In return, this official arranged for an express train to make its first stop out of New York the Riverside Station . That meant many riders from Old Greenwich and Riverside were able to take the 5:11pm train out of the city.  

There were many powerful business and finance people who took the train. One of them decided to rent or buy a barcar, and hired the railraod to haul the car. He even hired a Pullman Porter to serve drinks and sandwiches.    The bar car would be on the same 5:11 train every night. Although these were semi-private, the public was permitted to enter.  

The car to Riverside was one-half Pullman bedrooms and one-half bar lounge.  Commuters could use the bedrooms. The car was nicely furnished with upholstered chairs and paneled walls. However, there was no air conditioning. Windows couldn't be open due to the smoke, dust and dirt. Instead, a block of ice was placed in one end of the car and a fan blew cool air through the car!  People would normally sit in the same seat, while others stood and talked with a drink in their hand.

Women executives were a rarity in the 1950s, but there were a few. One was Libby O'Brien, who served as "Den Mother". Libby liked to celebrate holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, St. Patrick's Day and July 4th. She would hang streamers and decorations.  There were also hats, special plates and special food. Photos were taken, and some were framed and ended up on the wall.

At one point, the railroad decided to replace the rail car with a newer version.  After all, the car that was being used had exceeded its lifetime, having travelled thousands miles.  The new car had benches on the side.  It was nowhere as comfortable or warm as the old car.  One of the riders, Norton Mockridge, who was an editor for The World Telegraph & Sun, wrote a tongue-in-cheek article, lamenting the loss of the barcar.  A representative of the President of The New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad met with Mockridge and offered a newer "old car" .  It would had the same amenities.  The only stipulation was that it had to be named like some of the other cars.  Workers would paint the name opn the side.  It was called "V:XI  G.B.C." for the 5:11 Gentlemen's Bar Car.  All the memorabilia in the old car (e.g. paintings) would be transferred to the newer car.  Some people enjoyed the informal groups, and even had lapel pins, tie clasps and earrings made with the "V:XI" logo. It became a well-known clique.

Over time, attrition took its toll. Some riders retired or transferred out of the area. Others decided to travel by automobile.  By the early 1960s, the club car began to lose its appeal.   Major metropolitan areas still have trains to move people in and out of the cities.  You may encounter a snack car on Amtrak or the Acela, but the Gentlemen's Bar Car (a way of life) is gone.    We'd rather sit and read a book or newspaper than exchange anecdotes with our fellow passengers. 

I remember a song by Arlo Guthrie from the 1970s titled "Riding On The City of New Orleans".  Train workers are playing cards on a train while the train travels thousands of miles over the rails.  The workers aren't even paying attention.  Life is passing them by.  Guthrie is lamenting the old days when rail travel was romantic.  The railroads played an important role in history.  Trains used to carry construction materials and the people to build our big cities.  They even helped us expand into the western frontier.     It reminds me of a much simpler time.  Trains still carry people back and forth from major metropolitan areas; but they may never again play such a critical role in our countries history.   

 

SOURCE:  Commuting: Bar Car on Train, (Pearson, R.);  OHP Transcript, 1992. 

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