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Dining on the Rails: A Moveable Feast

Afternoon Lecture/Seminar

Friday, October 28, 2022 - 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1NV003
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Materials for this program

  1. Handout

Union Pacific dining car, City of Denver, ca 1950s

Prior to the Civil War, all dining services for rail passengers were provided by taverns, inns, and other vendors near station or servicing stops. Usually encompassing a 20-minute break, the food was poor in quality and offered little in the way of choice. Virtually no passenger train offered onboard dining services except some temporarily configured cars that served special trains or charters.

George Pullman’s company began to offer regular sleeping car service, and by 1875 several of those first-class cars contained a small kitchen and became known as “Hotel Cars.” The final two decades of the 19th century marked the introduction of dedicated dining cars, often rivaling fine restaurants and hotel dining rooms. Here is where onboard dining became an experience unto itself. Early railroad-owned dining cars were in great demand by the beginning of the 20th century as dining on board became available to all classes of rail train passengers. From cars serving sandwiches, soups, and snacks to those offering four-course meals served on fine china and linen tablecloths, dining cars met the needs of railroad patrons until the birth of Amtrak in 1971.

Railroad historian Joe Nevin traces the evolution of dining on the rails between the beginning of commercial service in 1830 and the advent of Amtrak. Using examples from the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, an Eastern pioneer of onboard services, he looks at dining-car design, menus, staffing, and how the rolling stock of these specialized cars were maintained.

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