On March 16, 1891, the opulent White Train, a luxury passenger train of the New York and New England Railroad, pulled out of Summer Street station in Boston on its first run, set to arrive in Grand Central Station in New York City in six hours. The Boston Herald reported that people lined the route through the city and suburbs “and gazed with mingled curiosity and delight at its handsome appearance.”
The train was pure Gilded Age splendor – its parlor cars were fitted with velvet carpets, silk draperies, and white silk curtains. The chairs were upholstered in gold plush; full-length glass mirrors were installed at each end of the cars. The coaches were heated with steam piped directly from the locomotive, an improvement over the fat-bellied stoves used in ordinary coaches. Pintsch gas lights brightly illuminated the coaches, replacing oil burning lights normally in use.
The dining car’s menu included baked striped bass with Italian sauce, roasted spring lamb, ribs of beef, sauté of chicken with mushrooms, and a wide array of vegetables, salads and desserts, with every fine wine and liquor available. There is no question that this luxury train was meant to serve the exquisite tastes of the robber barons and financial kings of the time.
The White Train’s name was literal – all of the cars were painted white. On its first run the crew, which included the famous locomotive engineer Gene Potter, wore white coats or overalls, white caps and white gloves. As time passed, when the white cars traveled through the countryside, particularly at dusk or in the evening, observers came to refer to it as an “eerie apparition.” Thus the White Train was soon better known as the Ghost Train.
In 19th century America, the railroad train held a place of prominence as the fastest mode of transportation. As the century progressed and more railroad lines were formed throughout the country, the railroad companies competed on which could produce the fastest trains. Prior to the 1880s travel between the financial centers of New York City and Boston usually involved steamships along Long Island Sound, connecting with trains in New London, Connecticut, or Fall River, Massachusetts. It wasn’t until 1893, when the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad completed its Shore Line Route, that passengers could ride uninterrupted between the two cities.
The New York and New England Railroad (NY&NE) was one of several inland routes, running from Boston to the Hudson River. Despite promoting itself as the “Air Line Route,” a reference to a route that cut through Connecticut and central Massachusetts on a diagonal, giving the impression it was faster than the Shore Line routes, it had to contend with the region’s many grades, curves and lightly constructed bridges. That did not deter the NY&NE’s goal of dominating passenger service between New York City and Boston.
The NY&NE debuted its first high-speed train along the Air Line Route in November 1884. Named the New England Limited, it was initially successful but by the late 1880s began to lose ridership to the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad’s Shore Line trains, which included the The Gilt Edge and the Shore Line Flyer.
In an effort to bring back customers to its inland route the NY&NE transitioned the New England Limited into the White Train, which was touted as the height of luxurious travel. The White Train was actually two trains, each leaving New York or Boston at 3 p.m., arriving at the other city at 9 p.m.
When leaving from Boston the train traveled 86 miles through central Massachusetts into Connecticut, on a right-of-way owned by the NY&NE, with no stops until it arrived in Willimantic, where it changed engines. The train then went on to Middletown and New Haven, completing its journey into Grand Central on right-of-way owned by the NYNH&HRR.
The NY&NE found the cost of keeping the white cars clean to be exorbitant, and the Ghost Train lasted just four and a half years. Its last run was on October 20, 1895, and was succeeded by the Air Line Limited. That same year the NY&NE was taken over by the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. The Air Line Limited ran until 1902, and passenger service ended on the old Air Line route by 1937.
The Ghost Train lives on in legend as one of the Gilded Age’s most opulent and noteworthy trains. This poem was distributed to its passengers on its first run in 1891, and well describes its impact at the time.
List, oh list to the railroad bard, Our new “White Train’s” the latest card; List to the poets’ dulcet rhyme, This train is always in on time!
Spread the glad news wide and fast The White Train’s come to Town at last! Such beautiful cars have never been seen, Outshining in splendor the sun’s bright sheen.
Without a jar, or roll, or antic, Without a stop to Willimantic, The New England’s Limited takes its way, At three o’clock each and every day.
One half the glories have not been told, Of that wonderful train of white and gold, Which leaves every day for New York at three, Over the scenic NY & NE!
Special thanks to historian Richard A. Fleischer for his help in clarifying the many confusions involving 19th century New England railroads, editing this writing and providing research and photographic materials.