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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: Hungry Travelers

Once increased railroad construction permitted a journey of more than a few hours, it was necessary to develop a plan for feeding the passengers. Doing this successfully was not as simple as it may sound. Some travelers carried their food with them, but a growing number were demanding meals along the road. This meant that, during the 1840s, “eating houses” began to appear at junction points. These were privately owned establishments adjacent to train depots. The railroads themselves also began to provide food for purchase within the stations. However, as James Porterfield recounts in Dining by Rail, these early eating stops left much to be desired. The coffee was bad, the meat worse. Hard-cooked eggs were stored too long in limed water and biscuits earned the nickname “sinkers.” Menus including items such as waffles with rye whiskey are persuasive evidence of the hearty constitution required of the early traveler looking for nourishment.

Another aspect of the less than elegant dining experience of the early days was the mob behavior that often occurred when the train stopped. Typically, the stops lasted no longer than twenty minutes and often meant a mad rush for the exits onto the platform and into the station. Pushing and shoving each other, and rarely sitting down, customers grabbed the available food and gobbled it as fast as they could, sometimes leaving the less aggressive members of the group with nothing. When the announcement was made that the train was leaving, perhaps without them, they rushed out with their hands and mouths filled. So much for old-fashioned manners!

It was not long before the railroads understood that it was in their best interest to make major improvements in the care and feeding of passengers. Delivering better food and more civilized service could produce extra revenue, and word of these improvements spread quickly, thus steering more customers onto those railroads. As Mr. Porterfield explains, the eating house experience survived for nearly sixty years, with many earning praise for the food and service. One such establishment, the Logan House in Altoona, PA., was held up as an example of the right way to serve the rail passenger. Described as a “mansion in the wilderness” where “men in spats and straw hats escorted women in cotton, ribbon and lace dresses, high-topped shoes, and silk parasols, listening to band concerts and dining in the hotel’s fine restaurant.

Competition was the impetus for technological advances in locomotives and the rolling stock they powered. It was no different with food. As transcontinental railroads were taking shape, the railroads increased their efforts to provide better meals, especially for those on extended journeys. By the late 1850s, travelers could book a trip from New Orleans to New York on a combined river steamer and railroad route. The riverboats routinely provided sleeping and dining accommodations, so the railroads felt compelled to provide comparable service to customers who were accustomed to such luxuries. As train speeds increased even more, it became impractical to stop for meals, and the dining car was born. Gradually, during the last decades of the 19th century, eating houses became less and less a part of the long distance rail travelers itinerary, although many of them continued to flourish as local institutions even into the 1950s.

Despite the bumpy start, dining on a train evolved into an elegant, even romantic experience. During the “golden age” of railroading, from the 1890s through the 1920s, it was possible to eat a meal cooked by expert chefs and served by highly skilled waiters while being whisked across our vast nation on a train pulled by a powerful steam locomotive.

Questions for Reading 2:
1.      What complaints did early rail travelers have about the food and related service provided for them?
2.     What improvements were made in response to these complaints?
3.      Why did the railroads decide to include dining cars on their trains?
4.      What period of time is known as the “golden age” of railroading? Is this what you expected? Why or why not?

This reading was excerpted from Dining by Rail: The History and Recipes of America’s Golden Age of Railroad Cuisine by James D. Porterfield.

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