Painter William Herndon Foster found poetry in an image of speed, purpose, and transition: a moonlit scene of two trains passing in the night—in this case, the westbound and eastbound versions of the Twentieth Century Limited, America’s most famous train. The luxurious trains raced between Chicago and New York during the middle of their namesake century. In this painting, they are probably crossing west of Buffalo, about halfway into their opposite journeys, the passengers snug in their Pullman bunks and the powerful steam locomotives taking full advantage of the smooth “Water Level Route,” whose straightaways and broad curves hugged the rivers and lakes of the Northeast. Travelers from New York would have stepped aboard in Grand Central Terminal from a scarlet carpet, emblazoned with the Twentieth Century’s name, that was the very origin of the phrase “red-carpet treatment”—and once aboard, they expected nothing short of the best.
This image, drawn from the poster collection of the Hoover Archives, dates from 1923 and was used to advertise the New York Central Railroad. The Twentieth Century Limited was then in its heyday as the preferred mode of travel for the influential and well heeled, who could also connect with Western destinations on other romantically named trains. William Foster, who liked scenes of airplanes, cars, and hunting dogs, had painted the train at least once before, in a 1917 work titled The Twentieth Century Limited—the Greatest Train in the World. Earlier, in an article he wrote and illustrated for Scribner’s magazine in 1910 titled “All in a Day’s Run,” Foster used charcoal sketches and a keen ear for dialect to capture the gritty life of the engineers, brakemen, and stokers who worked the steam trains. That same year he produced an ad for Oldsmobile showing the car racing alongside (and beating) the celebrated Twentieth Century Limited.
Something about this glamorous train lent itself to romance of many sorts. There was the technological: not only were the trains fast, but innovations in streamlining made them even faster. Industrial design wizard Henry Dreyfuss created its most famous locomotives and cars, lending them the same functional grace he gave to vacuum cleaners, clocks, typewriters, and telephones of the era. His steam engines and wraparound parlor cars seem to be streaking past even when standing still.
The Limited epitomized the romance of the destination, the anticipation of waking up in a new city after a night of cocktails, filet mignon, and gazing out the sleeper-car window at the lights of towns and crossings blurring past.
Naturally the Twentieth Century Limited blazed its way into popular culture, too, often acquiring romantic associations of the literal sort. One of the earliest was Twentieth Century, a 1932 Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (creators of The Front Page) that spawned multiple movies and musicals featuring madcap misadventures, showbiz, and love. The train hosted a crooked poker game in the Redford-Newman movie The Sting. But its most famous role may have been in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), wherein Cary Grant and Eve Marie Saint meet, seduce each other as the Hudson River flashes by outside the dining car, and wind up in her compartment. “Tell me,” he asks, “what do you do besides lure men to their doom on the Twentieth Century Limited?” Their unforgettable trip, like the train’s, is just beginning.
However, by the 1950s, and indeed after World War II, the romance was over. The Twentieth Century Limited and train travel everywhere were in decline. Passenger trains couldn’t compete with cheap air travel, especially after jet planes came along, or interstate highways. Like ocean liners, long-distance trains became a relic.
The last of the Twentieth Century Limited trains ended its run well before the century itself, on December 3, 1967. Today Amtrak runs an overnight train, the Lake Shore Limited, along much the same route, though much slower than in the 1930s. Sleeper cars are still available—but no red carpets.
— Charles Lindsey