1920’s and 1930’s travel: Chicago’s Northwestern Train

By Caryl Clem: 

Traveling by train offered luxurious surroundings in the 1920’s to appeal to anyone bitten with the travel bug.  Magnificent lightening, rich facade décor, red carpeting, table linens in the dining room and appealing curtained sleeping quarters echoed eloquence at reasonable prices for passengers. In college attending the University of Illinois in 1927-1930, my father worked for the United States Department of Agriculture traveling through the state to examine the corn fields for disease bearing insects.  He enjoyed riding on trains whose seating arrangement s was intimate, 2 booth seats across from each other between a tables looking out the window.  “Coach” cars had sofas and upholstered furniture. My father carried a black leather suitcase smaller than the backpacks students carry today.

In 1931, my Father’s fiancée lived in Mattoon, a major railroad crossroads in southern Illinois while his first teaching job was in a small rural town in northern Illinois. Train travel shortened the distance between them on weekends.  His fiancée’s father was a train engineer, free passes to ride the rails.

Gilbert Clem wrote about one night in Chicago’s Northwestern Station with three story waiting room areas with marble walls and floors waiting for the last train. The place was as dead as a morgue.  Not a person in sight until he entered the elaborate washroom where he noticed a very shabby dressed man scurries into another stall.  A quick flush and the man had left before my Father had a chance to use the lavatory.  As my Father exited, the bright lights outside illuminated at single dollar bill just outside the door.  At a time when 2 hamburgers at a restaurant cost 25 cents, the urge to bend down and lower his head for the free money was a temptation.  My Father’s defensive sense kicked; “Why is there a dollar bill in an empty building? “ He passed it up and walked quickly away.  He turned around a few feet later to see the shadow of the shabbily dressed man picking the bill up and placing it into his pocket.

A common diversion on trains was playing cards, especially poker.  Gilbert was asked to join a group of guys that needed a fourth player to play bridge. He left his overnight bag on his seat informing his neighbor he was leaving for a short time. A member wanted to play a poker hand  to place bets on the hands dealt.  My Dad never gambled and refused to join.  Poker first, winnings spilt. The bridge hands were played keeping scores. Then the second hand and the poker betting was higher. The loser felt cheated.  Gilbert turned his hand in and hurried to his seat in the next car. Later security was looking for the fourth player of the group in trouble for fighting over the cards.  Gilbert sat quietly reading , acting like he had never  left his seat. Train travel has changed  but you still need to be careful to stay safe.

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