All Aboard! The Legendary 20th Century Limited Train

The design inspiration behind our own logo is the legendary 20th Century Limited express train that ran from 1902 through 1967 on the New York Central Railroad. Dubbed in marketing materials as “The Most Famous Train in the World,” it had long been considered one of the greatest trains ever run.

20th Century Limited: The Beginnings of a Legend

In June 1905, the train was wrecked on the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railway line at Mentor, Ohio. At its prime in 1928, the 20th Century Limited generated revenues of $10 million and was considered to be the world’s most profitable train at the time. For just over $50, passengers received a bed shrouded by curtains off the aisle; private compartments were more costly.

The striking, now-iconic design with its signature bullet nose that the 20th Century Limited became known for was the vision of one very talented industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss. Though the 20th Century Limited began its run in 1902, it wasn’t until June 1938 when the New York Central debuted new locomotives and Pullman cars featuring the streamlined design. On June 15, 1938, the Dreyfuss Hudson was launched to pull the bold 20th Century Limited.

4-6-4 Hudson Locomotives Led the Way

Specially streamlined 4-6-4 Hudsons proudly led the train. Part of what made the design so memorable were the smooth curves and angles which created the appearance of motion, even when the Hudsons weren’t even moving. Ten of New York Central’s Class J3a’s, numbered 5445 through 5454, received the striking treatment. The steam locomotives were manufactured by Alco in 1938.

The J3a’s weren’t just eye candy; these robust machines boasted some of the newest technological advancements of the day, including Elesco feedwater heaters and roller bearings that were installed on all locomotive and tender axles.

But as the old saying goes, beauty fades: Post WWII, nine locomotives lost their shrouding between 1946 and 1947; #5450 was rocked by a boiler explosion in 1953. Unfortunately, none were saved.

All Aboard the Luxury Liner – AKA the 20th Century Limited

Thanks to advancements in engineering that reduced the weight of the steel framework and boosted power, these streamliner trains boasted faster speeds and were described as luxury liners. Rightly so – it was a popular mode of travel for the rich and famous of the era, with regular passengers including J.P. Morgan, Theodore Roosevelt, and “Diamond Jim” Brady, amongst many others.

EMD diesel-electrics succeeded steam in 1945; the replacement diesel-electric trainset was inaugurated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower in September 1948. Film buffs may recognize this trainset from popular films like North by Northwest (1959) and The Band Wagon (1953).

Post World War II Marks the End of an Era

Following WWII, passenger train travel saw a sharp decline, and things continued in that direction during the 1950s. The 20th Century Limited was discontinued in late 1967, prior to the merger that established Penn Central (which united the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad).

Only half-occupied, the 20th Century Limited departed track 34 for its final journey on December 2, 1967. Even on its last voyage, boarding passengers received customary tokens of appreciation: men were given carnations; women, perfume and flowers.

A Legendary Locomotive Lives On

Though 1967 marked the end of an era, the commanding influence of 20th Century Limited lives on even to this day. The standout, streamlined Art Deco design serves as creative inspiration in modern logos (including our own!) and corporate branding.

We’ll close with a nostalgic quote from an original “Heritage of Hospitality” marketing piece for the 20th Century Limited:

Yet something more than modernity…more than luxury…more than dependability will always set this train apart. For this is the 20th CENTURY LIMITED. Aboard it you have that sense of being served with distinction which generations of CENTURY riders have known…a heritage of hospitality straight from the age of elegance!