Business on the Rails

Custom-built railroad cars, designed as business tools to foster efficiency and enhance success, were the forebearers of today’s business jets
culture, history, travel, savannah
Written By Christine Lucas
Photography By Terry Duthu

Before Gulfstream created the world’s first purpose-built business aircraft, business executives who wanted to reach their destinations quickly and efficiently traveled by rail, and the prosperous ones did so in specially outfitted office cars converted from previous incarnations. This is how, in 1950, an old parlor car named Edith got a new lease on life as the G650 of her day.

Much like the business jet travel of today, riding by private railcar in the 1950s wasn’t just about comfort or luxury—a custom railcar was a practical business tool. Office cars like Edith typically offered amenities including staterooms, an observation room, dining room, kitchen and shower. Such functionality, combined with an ability to relax between meetings, have sidebar conversations in private, prepare or rehearse a presentation and even change strategies en route, meant that these cars’ owners could attend meetings in other cities across the country and bring business associates along for an impressive (and productive) ride.

“You could arrange to have the car pulled up and down the line, and the really successful owners would run a ‘special,’” says Scott Smith, president and chief operating officer of the Coastal Heritage Society in Savannah, Georgia. “A ‘special’ required clearing the track of other trains and having a dedicated locomotive, but you could run on your own schedule.”

“Practical as it was to conduct business on the rails, service wasn’t ignored,” Smith says. “You’d have your chef, porter and a crew too. You could say, ‘Whiskey and soda with just a little ice,’ and you’d have it.”

ROUNDHOUSE FEATURED AT MUSEUM

Today, the retired Edith sits in the roundhouse of the Georgia State Railroad Museum, part of the Tricentennial Park sites on the west side of Savannah’s Historic District. The historic campus, including the railroad museum, is under the supervision of the Coastal Heritage Society. The museum is the largest and oldest existing 19th century railroad operations complex in the country, and train enthusiasts who visit enjoy much more than a peek at Edith and the roundhouse. They also can ride steam and diesel locomotives, watch steam machinery puff and whir, tour blacksmith and carpentry shops, and see model railroads, which linked the country and fostered international trade long before anyone termed the phrase “global village.”

“Roundhouses are now exceedingly rare,” says railroad historian John Hanky. “There are only 200 of them left out of 3,500 once used in the United States.”

The Coastal Heritage Society is among about a dozen preservation groups lucky enough to have a roundhouse. Mild climates allowed roundhouses used in the South to remain doorless, unlike their Northern counterparts. Engines and cars that needed servicing were pulled into the roundhouse and onto a turntable. Most 19th century locomotives weren’t yet designed to go in reverse, so the turntable made it easy to turn the car and get it back on the rails.

“As a form, a roundhouse is a fairly clever way to maximize space,” Hanky says, “so it’s an example of early industrial efficiency.”

WARS IMPACT RAILWAY'S FATE

Much of the United States’ history is reflected in how rail transportation began, grew and faded. Even Edith shared in some of the drama.

The Central of Georgia Railway put its first track down in 1835 toward Macon, Georgia. The railway was founded to make Savannah competitive with Charleston, South Carolina, whose railroad was already benefiting from the cotton it shipped from the interior of the state. By 1843, the Central of Georgia’s completed line made it the longest railroad under one management in the world.

Everything changed 21 years later during the Civil War, when Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union troops charged through Georgia, doing their best to destroy as much of the railroad’s equipment as possible. Along with broken locomotives and cars, Union troops heated hundreds of miles of iron rails, bending them around trees. They were called “Sherman’s neckties,” and were another method of stopping the opposing troops.

World War II tested the Central of Georgia in other ways. By the 1940s, railroad company finances were dismal, but passenger service was increasing. More cars were needed, and so the rail company purchased Edith from the Pullman Car Company in 1942 for $7,900 (approximately $110,000 today). Her interior was remodeled, and she served as a commuter workhorse until May 1948. That was when letters started flying around the company: In anticipation of a post-WW II renewed demand for business travel, Edith was about to get an extreme makeover.

EDITH'S TRANSFORMATION

The updated dining room would have hotel china and silverware for 10. The four refurbished staterooms would include a bed, folding chair, wardrobe, shoe locker and “combolet.” This combination sink, toilet and mirror would be lit for convenient shaves, and the adjacent tile shower would be a singer’s delight.

Every comfort was considered, including adding warm air channels between seats and the sidewalls to “eliminate the cold window effect.” Edith’s transformation was completed February 27, 1950. For the next 20 years, she was the epitome of style, speed, efficiency and comfort. By 1970, as automobile and air travel came to dominate, Edith, sadly, had outlived her purpose.

Still, after all this time, Edith is as charming as ever. If you’d like to call on her, she’s tucked inside the roundhouse among less refined but equally impressive brutes, including the No. 30, a 1913 steam locomotive and the No. 119, a 1947 diesel.



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