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The Silver Streak film poster"Streamliners: America's Lost Trains" offers insights into American history topics including transportation, technology, government regulation, geography, engineering and industrial design. You can use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this website to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities. 

History

1. Divide the class into four groups and construct an illustrated timeline of United States railroad history. Each group should cover one of the following periods: 1860-1900, 1900-1930, 1930-1945, and 1945-present. Groups must include on their portion of the timeline the most important events (including names and dates) required to understand the development of railroads during their time period. (Groups may consult the timeline for ideas.) Groups also must include at least one illustration on their timeline. Each group, though, is free to design its timeline as it wishes. After each group has made an oral presentation that explains each of the entries and illustrations on its portion of the timeline, the class should combine all timelines.

2a. Read the essay on the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, which describes visitors' interest in "futuristic" products like the new streamlined trains. Can you think of any products that are available today -- or that are now being developed -- that promise new and exciting technological advances? (You might want to check magazines like Popular Mechanics for ideas.) If possible, bring an ad or other description of this product to class.

2b. Have students read Isaac Asimov's 1964 article, "Visit to the World's Fair of 2014." Divide the class into small groups and have each group investigate one of the predictions Asimov made for life 50 years into the future. Ask each group to assess the prediction: was it accurate or not? Does anything exist today similar to what Asimov describes? Does the group think the prediction should become reality, and if so, why? The group can also build a model of a predicted object, whether or not it exists today, and present their findings to the rest of the class. You may also choose as a group to make predictions about life fifty years from now, following the example of Asimov, and make a wall display of these predictions. [As of 2011, a subscription to the New York Times is necessary to read the article.]

Economics

1. Read about the contributions of Edward G. Budd and Charles F. Kettering to the development of the Zephyr. What new technology did each man help create?

Research information about the zephyr online. How many passengers could fit in the main passenger compartment? Where did first-class passengers sit? What part of the train was related to the U.S. Post Office?  What photos can you find of products (besides trains) that adopted the streamlined design?

Geography

1. Read the story of the Dawn-to-Dusk Run. Then draw or photocopy a map of the United States. Label the start and end points of the Burlington (Pioneer) Zephyr's record-breaking run in 1934, and draw a red line connecting these two points. Label this route with the distance, time, average speed, and date of this famous run.

2. Read the original New York Times article on the Zephyr's record-breaking run. Then write a one-paragraph summary of the article that includes the most important facts, as well as any facts you found particularly interesting or surprising. [As of 2011, a subscription to the New York Times is necessary to read the article.]

3. Visit the Amtrak website. Click on "Routes" to view a map of Amtrak routes across the United States. (a) Which Amtrak route would you use to repeat the famous 1934 run of the Zephyr? (b) What are the start and end points of this route?

Civics

1. Read about the development of the Interstate Commerce Commission. (a) Why did the federal government begin to regulate the railroads? (b) How did these regulations affect the railroads' ability to compete against other forms of transportation?

2. Hold a class debate on the following question: Should the federal government continue to use tax dollars to support passenger rail service, as it now does through Amtrak? Begin by dividing the class into two groups based on whether they personally favor or oppose federal support. Then tell the groups that they will be responsible for arguing the opposing opinion -- in other words, the group consisting of students who favor federal support will argue against it, and vice versa. For background, students should review website materials such as the essay on the development of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Also encourage students to do outside research on topics such as the history of Amtrak and the use of government funds for highway construction.


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Share Your Story

The Railroad revolutionized American travel. What trains have you been on? Do you have any memories of Streamliners? Have you been in a Pullman car? Share your most memorable train ride.