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Streamliners: America's Lost Trains | Timeline

Streamliners of America

The Pioneer Zephyr. Courtesy: Burlington Route Historical Society

There are 23 miles of railroad in the United States.

May 11, 1844
Samuel Morse sends the first long-distance telegraph message from Supreme Court chambers in Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, ushering in a new era in communication.

September 20, 1850
President Millard Fillmore signs the first Railroad Land Grant Act. By encouraging railroad construction in undeveloped territories, particularly in the South and West, the government hopes to attract settlers, increase taxable wealth, and unify and strengthen the growing nation.

There are now 9,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

Telegraphs are now used for dispatching trains.

The growing railroad industry attracts energetic young employees like the Scottish immigrant Andrew Carnegie, who launches his career at the Pennsylvania Railroad as a $35-per-month telegraph operator.

In England, Henry Bessemer develops the Bessemer converter, which enables steel to be manufactured inexpensively, an accomplishment for which he is knighted in 1879. The process will be introduced in Troy, New York, nine years later.

There are now 30,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

The Civil War begins. It will be the first war in which railroads play a significant role in transporting soldiers and equipment.

July 7, 1862
Congress authorizes the construction of a transcontinental railroad with federal land grants under the first Pacific Railway Act. The Union Pacific will build westward from Omaha, the Central Pacific eastward from Sacramento. In addition, the legislation grants the railroads 10 sections of public domain lands on both sides of the railway. Two years later, the second Pacific Railway Act doubles the size of federal land grants.

The first domestic steel rails are produced. Steel rails are costly; only the lines with heavy traffic can afford to put them in place. By 1890, the majority of all railroad mileage will be laid with steel rails.

The first railroad sleeping car, designed by George Pullman, appears in the United States. When one of Pullman's cars is attached to the funeral train carrying Abraham Lincoln's body in April, demand for them skyrockets. Two years later Pullman will introduce the refrigerator car.

Octotber 6, 1866
In Jackson County, Indiana, the Reno Gang, a band of outlaw brothers, is credited with the first organized transcontinental train robbery in history. In the aftermath of the Civil War, law enforcement officials and passengers consider train robberies a serious threat.

Between 1869-1894, five transcontinental railroads will be completed. Transcontinental railroads of the time do not run from coast to coast, but from the Missouri River to the West Coast.

April 1869
Twenty-three-year-old George Westinghouse receives a patent for the air brake, which allows trains to stop with fail-safe accuracy. Though skeptics initially ridicule the invention, which earns Westinghouse the nickname "Crazy George," it is quickly embraced, and in July Westinghouse forms the Westinghouse Air Brake Company to manufacture them.

April 28, 1869
Central Pacific workers build an astounding ten miles of track in one day, racing to meet the Union Pacific and complete the first transcontinental railroad.

May 10, 1869
Union Pacific and Central Pacific officials drive the golden spike at Promontory Summit, in the Utah territory. The spike is connected to a telegraph line, which sends out word of the first transcontinental rail route's completion.

There are now 53,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

The federal government discontinues its Railroad Land Grant policy.

Without any federal assistance, and facing enormous geographic hurdles, railroad builder James J. Hill commences the expansion of his St. Paul, Minnesota-based railroad (which will become the Great Northern Railway Company) across the rugged terrain of the Pacific Northwest.

Thomas Edison and English inventor Joseph Wilson Swan independently devise the first practical electric lights.

There are now 93,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

George Westinghouse perfects the first automatic electric block signal, which is designed to prevent train crashes, increase passenger safety, and move rail traffic more efficiently. Westinghouse's safety devices will have a tremendous impact on the railroad industry.

November 18, 1883
The General Time Convention, a railroad trade group seeking to simplify train schedules, replaces local time with standard time in the United States and Canada; four standard time zones go into effect. Prior to this, all trains had run on local times, with each community setting its time independently, which made scheduling connections virtually impossible.

July 3, 1886
Karl Friedrich Benz debuts what is considered the world's first practical automobile. Powered by a gas engine designed by Gottlieb Daimler, Benz's three-wheel vehicle is unlike all previous automobiles; gas engines had been added to horseless carriages, but Benz's vehicle is designed from the ground up.

Decemeber 12, 1887
In response to local and state governments' protests over unregulated rate increases among railroads, Congress passes the Interstate Commerce Act. The legislation establishes the Interstate Commerce Commission to control aspects of the railroad industry, the first in America to be subject to regulation by a federal government agency.

Nikola Tesla receives a patent for the first alternating-current electric motor. Tesla's motor, purchased by the Westinghouse Company, paves the way for the manufacture of cars and trucks.

Major engineering feats -- and geographical exploration -- continue to characterize the railroads' westward expansion. The Great Northern Railway's bold civil engineer, John F. Stevens, locates the Marias Pass in Montana and builds the railroad through it, traversing the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 5,216 feet. His experiences in the West will prepare him to step in and salvage the largest civil engineering project of his day, the construction of the Panama Canal.

There are now 164,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

August 10, 1893
After 12 years of trying to improve on the efficiency of the steam engine, Rudolf Diesel debuts his internal-combustion engine. It runs on its own power for the first time, but will take another four years to perfect.

November 1897
Ransom E. Olds receives a patent for the horseless carriage, but as yet it poses little threat to railroads. Automobiles are novelties for the wealthy; railway passenger traffic triples between 1896 and 1916.

November 27, 1897
Former slave and ex-railroad worker Andrew Jackson Beard invents and patents the Jenny Coupler, the device that does the dangerous job of hooking train cars together. Beard says that his invention will save countless lives and limbs.

There are now 193,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

Inventor-author Frederick Upham Adams convinces the Baltimore & Ohio to build the Adams Windsplitter, an early streamlined train that reaches 85 miles per hour on test runs. By the turn of the 20th century, Adams has been granted several patents for streamliner designs.

May 23 - July 26, 1903
Dr. H. Nelson Jackson and his driver, Sewell H. Croker, complete the first coast-to-coast crossing of the North American continent by car. It takes them 65 days to go from San Francisco to New York.

June 1903
Henry Ford founds the Ford Motor Company, an automobile manufacturing company with a goal of mass production done by machines, not men, wherever possible.

December 17, 1903
Orville and Wilbur Wright make their first airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

After years of scattered use at different railroads, all-steel passenger cars are now placed in regular service across the country.

September 16, 1908
Billy Durant incorporates General Motors. Within days, GM buys Buick, and later Oldsmobile and Cadillac.

The Model T. Courtesy: Library of Congress

September 27, 1908
Henry Ford introduces his first Model T, a car that will achieve unparalleled popularity and change the automotive industry, and American life, forever.

Decemeber 17, 1910
There are now 240,000 miles of railroad in the United States.

Charles Kettering develops the first practical self-starter device in the United States.

Ford slashes prices on the Model T after opening his Highland Park, Michigan, assembly line. By 1930, the number of registered cars on U.S. roads will soar to 23 million.

August 20, 1913
Sheffield, England, metallurgist Harry Brearley invents stainless steel while investigating the corrosion of rifle barrels for a local small arms manufacturer. Based on its rustless quality and its resistance to food acids and germs, Brearley persuades cutlery manufacturers to adopt it.

National rail mileage peaks at 254,000 miles. Four years later, it will begin to drop, though only by 1,000 miles at first.

December 26, 1917
Under President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. government nationalizes railroads. The government-run United States Railroad Administration, staffed primarily by railroad men, runs the railroads with the purpose of increasing wartime efficiency. The USRA will function for 26 months.

March 19, 1918
The Standard Time Act is passed, instituting the standard time zones that have been in use in America since 1883. The act also implements daylight savings time, in an effort to conserve resources for the war effort.

June 14, 1919
Competing for a £10,000 prize offered by London's Daily Mail for a successful transatlantic crossing, Englishmen John W. Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown make the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16 hours, 27 minutes.

Passenger rail travel reaches its all-time high, with 1.2 million passengers boarding 9,000 inter-city trains and racking up 47 million passenger miles every day.

March 1, 1920
The Esch-Cummins Act, or the Transportation Act, of 1920 returns railroads to private management.

The Central Railroad of New Jersey uses the first diesel-electric locomotive in regular switching service for its operations to New York City.

Commercial airlines carry 5,800 passengers over the course of the year.

Train designers produce prototypes of air-conditioned passenger cars.

With the goal of using environmental resources wisely, Buckminster Fuller designs the Dymaxion House, a mass-produced, easily transportable, environmentally efficient house. According to his plans, the dwelling can be shipped anywhere in the world in a tube.

May 20, 1927
Charles Lindbergh becomes an international celebrity when he makes a successful transatlantic flight aboard his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, traveling nonstop from New York to Paris in 33.5 hours.

May 22, 1927
The Iron Lung, the first artificial respirator designed to help polio victims breathe, is developed by Philip Drinker and Louis Shaw. Eight years later, the Iron Lung will figure prominently in Silver Streak, a film starring the Burlington Zephyr train.

Britain's premier train, the Royal Scot, sets the nonstop distance record for rail travel on a route from Glasgow to London. The English train will hold the record for six years, until the record-breaking run of the Zephyr.

June 17-18, 1928
Amelia Earhart becomes the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.

December 24, 1928
In Washington, the Great Northern Railway's Cascade Tunnel, begun in 1925, is completed. At close to eight miles, it is the longest railroad tunnel in the Western Hemisphere.

Greyhound Bus Lines begins service.

October 1929
The U.S. stock market crashes. The crash occurs over a period of several weeks.

The country slides into a severe economic crisis, the Great Depression.

Ralph Budd, a protégé of John Stevens from railroad-expansion and Panama Canal days, takes control of the Burlington Railroad, which has been losing business to cars, buses, and airplanes since the late 1920s. The railroad has also been crumbling under the weight of the Depression. Between 1926 and 1929 the 11,000-mile railroad had lost a fifth of its passengers, and then between 1929 and 1931 lost half of what remained.

President Herbert Hoover's Reconstruction Finance Corporation, created to spur economic activity during the Depression, lends money to the railroads and other financial, agricultural, and industrial institutions. The government agency's scope will be expanded under Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, and will merge with other agencies to form the Federal Loan Agency in 1939. It will be disbanded in 1957 amid charges of political favoritism.

September 29, 1932
Ralph Budd meets with manufacturer Edward G. Budd (no relation) and soon commissions the Philadelphia metal maker to build a streamlined train, the Burlington Zephyr. He hopes that its speed and innovative design will revive interest in passenger rail travel.

November 8, 1932
Franklin Delano Roosevelt is elected to the first of his four presidential terms. Vowing to lead the nation out of the Depression, Roosevelt campaigns on a platform of new social programs and public works expenditures such as the CCC, and he promises to revive the rail industry.

May 27, 1932
Chicago's World's Fair, known as "A Century of Progress," opens and runs for two years. During the second year of the Fair, the Burlington Zephyr and the Union Pacific M-10,000 will attract hundreds of thousands of visitors and will help to usher in the era of professional industrial design, a field deeply influenced by the streamliner trains' integration of form and function.

June 1933
Congress passes the Emergency Railroad Transportation Act, freezing railroad employment for three years. In his implementation of the new law, President Roosevelt names Joseph Eastman the Federal Coordinator of Transportation. He is given the task of eliminating duplicated services and facilities, and reducing costs wherever possible. Eastman will be instrumental in arranging funding for the railroads to build the next generation of streamliners.

Railroads introduce diesel locomotives for passenger service. Within seven years they will be used in freight service as well, and boxy, steam-powered locomotives, with their billowing clouds of white steam exhaust, will inexorably give way to sleek, internal combustion-powered trains.

February 12, 1934
The Union Pacific M-10,000, (or The City of Salina, as it was later named) embarks on a 12,000-mile coast-to-coast tour. Enormous crowds turn out across the nation to admire its streamlined look.

April 18, 1934
Having noticed that personal washing machines are a luxury many of his neighbors can not afford, J.F. Cantrell opens the first laundromat, in Fort Worth, Texas. Soon thereafter, household appliances will get a facelift as the popularity of streamline design grips America.

May 26, 1934
Completed in April, the Burlington Zephyr makes its triumphant nonstop "Dawn to Dusk" run from Denver to Chicago. Achieving an average -- and unprecedented -- 77.6 miles per hour, and hitting a top speed of 104 miles per hour, it amasses world speed records, as well as legions of fans.

November 11, 1934
The Zephyr is put into regular service between Lincoln, Nebraska, and Kansas City, Missouri. Despite double-digit unemployment in the farm belt, the train attracts so many riders that passengers must be turned away. The following year it will add a fourth car to meet the demand.

The film Silver Streak opens in the United States, capitalizing on the nation's infatuation with new train technology. The Burlington Zephyr plays a starring role in the film, charged with getting an Iron Lung to an ailing patient before it's too late.

April 1935
The first Public Works Administration-funded streamliner, The Comet, makes its debut. Made for the New Haven Railroad, it runs between Boston and Providence and can reach speeds of up to 109 miles per hour. Despite the streamliner craze, The Comet is only one of a handful of new diesel trains, and diesels are still only used for passenger traffic; most railroads streamline their existing steam locomotives because updating old equipment costs less than purchasing new trains.

November 11, 1936
A year after it is put into service, the Burlington Zephyr is renamed the Pioneer Zephyr, to distinguish it from the other Zephyr trains that Burlington is adding to its roster.

With the ever-increasing popularity of Florida as a tourist destination, the Seaboard Railway inaugurates the Silver Meteor, which trims eight hours off the 33-hour run from New York to Florida. Despite the public's evident delight with streamliners, the railroads' spectacular promotional efforts, and steady technological improvements, the railroad industry still struggles.

September 1939
With the threat of war in Europe, Burlington's Ralph Budd meets with President Roosevelt and Joe Eastman in the White House. Budd argues successfully against nationalization of the railroads, but agrees that railroads will be important to the wartime effort.

November 18, 1939
Britain and France declare war on Germany. President Roosevelt still hopes that the United States can retain its position of neutrality

Railroad mileage in the United States drops to 233,000 miles.

The Union Pacific M-10,000 is retired from service.

May 28, 1940
In an effort to coordinate wartime transport, President Roosevelt names Ralph Budd Transportation Commissioner of the Advisory Commission to the Council of National Defense. Seven months later, as the war in Europe escalates, Budd is appointed Director of the Transportation Division in the newly formed Office of Emergency Management.

December 7, 1941
The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The United States enters the war the next day.

December 18, 1941
President Roosevelt sets up the Office of Defense Transportation and picks Joe Eastman to lead it. The ODT coordinates all transportation facilities for the war effort. To avoid a federal seizure of railroads, as happened during the First World War, the railroads cooperate completely.

February 10, 1942
Henry Ford halts production of nonmilitary vehicles as America enters the war. Many railroad companies will soon follow suit.

Heavy reliance on railroads during the war completely reverses the railroads' situation. Despite the wild success of streamliner trains, railroads had been underused during the Depression. Now they are in constant demand, as the only long-distance transport system that can handle heavy machinery and large numbers of people. Trains are run harder and longer, in order to transport soldiers, along with wartime cargo like jeeps and tanks, across the nation. At the same time, with raw manufacturing materials and labor diverted to the war effort, new train cars, equipment, and supplies for necessary repairs are all in short supply. By war's end, the railroads will be left in poor shape physically.

December 27, 1943
Under orders from President Roosevelt, the U.S. Army takes possession of the nation's railroads. Recent labor strikes have crippled wartime industries, and Roosevelt fears that rail workers, in a wage dispute with their owners, might be next. The dispute is settled in a few weeks, and the government returns the railroads to their private managers.

Railroads handle two-thirds of the nation's commercial passenger traffic. Yet the railroad industry fails to revitalize itself after the war, even though it invests millions in new passenger equipment. Over the next two decades, railroad passenger volume will steadily decline, from 790 million riders to 298 million, as people choose other means of transportation. Cars, which allow people to go directly from point to point, will explode in popularity. Airplanes will start to capture long-haul passenger traffic, also eating into the railroads' business.

The number of commercial airline passengers in the United States reaches 16.7 million.

U.S. railroad mileage, now at 224,000 miles, continues to drop.

Railroads make an expensive decision to convert their entire locomotive fleets to diesel power.

To service Americans' growing love for car travel, Holiday Inn opens the nation's first motel chain. Americans are increasingly taking car vacations, and the chain is an instant success.

June 29, 1956
The Federal Aid Highway Act authorizes the construction of an interstate highway system of more than 40,000 miles. Railroads and public transportation systems remain unsubsidized. This massive public works project will lead to a major shift in population from city to suburb, and to increased American reliance on the automobile.

For the first time, air travel boasts more passengers than rail travel, and airlines improve their appeal and their bottom lines by introducing jet airplanes. The following year the Federal Aviation Administration will be formed, after a series of midair collisions jeopardizes the burgeoning industry.

The ICC issues a report stating that the passenger train is becoming obsolete, and will "in all probability 'take its place in the transportation museum along with the stagecoach, the sidewheeler, and the steam locomotive.'"

May 26, 1960
Three months after it is removed from service, and 26 years to the day after its record-breaking run, the Pioneer Zephyr is presented to Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry.

Crowds emerge from two Amtrak trains. Courtesy: National Archives

Congress creates Amtrak in an effort to relieve railroads of the burdens of passenger traffic. For the first time, the U.S. government will provide direct financial assistance to the rail passenger service. Having signed contracts with virtually all the privately owned railroads, Amtrak begins operation in 1971. Under Amtrak, passenger rail service continues to lose money, as it has since the 1930s.

The Staggers Act is passed. Though it does not completely deregulate the rail industry (the ICC still retains control over setting rates), the legislation triggers massive reforms by allowing railroads to function competitively, placing increased reliance on the marketplace and not on regulation.


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