In the spring
of 1968, Ross Rowland, Jr., a successful Wall Street commodities
broker and railfan, approached the Association of American Railroads (AAR) to
see what the railroad industry had planned for next year's hundredth
anniversary of the linking of the continent by rail.
The answer was
Park Service, on the other hand, planned a grand ceremony on May
10th at the newly created Golden
Spike National Historic Site. But outside of Utah, there
were no real plans for drawing attention to this monumental event.
his High Iron Company crew were already on course to spend thousands
of man-hours restoring a main-line steam locomotive -- NKP 759 --
to operating condition. What better way to celebrate the centennial
of the Golden Spike than with a cross-country excursion train pulled
Ross and crew
got busy and submitted a plan to the AAR to organize and build a
special steam-powered display/excursion train to operate round-trip
from New York City to Salt Lake City.
It would be
called the Golden Spike Centennial Limited. The train would consist
of three display cars to be open for public viewing at thirteen
different stops. Inside these three converted baggage cars would
be displays highlighting the past, present, and future of railroading
Behind the display
cars would be several coach passenger cars for carrying all of the
fare-paying passengers -- including two diners to keep them all
fed and happy.
The AAR gave
its endorsement to the plan and things shifted into high gear.
By the spring
of 1969, the train was ready to go.
The train itself
was quite a sight. The entire train had been decorated in a special
AAR paint scheme -- light blue with gold trim and accents. Across
the side of the tender was proclaimed "AMERICAN RAILROADS".
The special paint scheme was also given to the Penn Central GG-1
electric locomotive that would pull the train on its final leg back
passengers paid $995 for a roundtrip ticket on "The Blue Train",
as it came to be called. Dozens of other passengers paid lesser
amounts for shorter segments. Actor John Wayne rode the train the
last day of the trip into Salt Lake City. His film True Grit had its world premiere at the Capitol Theater in Salt Lake City
on Friday May 9. (He won an Oscar for his performance.) In a conversation
with Ross Rowland, The Duke wondered aloud if there couldn't be
a special train for the nation's upcoming Bicentennial...
In the end,
the train would be pulled by ten locomotives -- two steam, two electric
(counting the one pulling the train the first 32 miles out of Manhattan)
and six diesels -- including the first starring role for Union Pacific's
new Centennial diesel, the largest ever built.
to the train at its 13 display stops was overwhelming. In three
of the cities, the train crew kept the train open all night for
visitors. Using portable stairs and ramps, it wasn't just the three
display cars that were open each night -- it was the entire train! Except for the crew car, the public could view everything from the
locomotive cab to the observation car at the tail.
The train was
an unqualified hit with the public. Thousands toured the train's
display cars and many thousands more came to watch the steam locomotive
pull the embodiment of America's railroads across the country.
As bold as the
GSCL had been, it was nothing like what was to follow for Ross and
with which the Golden Spike Centennial Ltd was received led directly
to America's greatest Bicentennial celebration just six years later
-- when over 7,000,000 turned out to visit the steam-powered 25-car
red, white, and blue American Freedom Train.