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Home / Railroad Stories: The Way It Was / Smoldering embers of a different age

Smoldering embers of a different age

By W. L. Gwyer | October 30, 2019

Remembering a 1967 ride on the New Haven's Owl

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A passenger for the New Haven’s Owl checks in at the gate for track 21 in Grand Central Terminal. This photo, from March 1957 Trains magazine, was author Gwyer’s introduction to the train.
Don Wood
I was first introduced to the New Haven Railroad’s Owl by a photo in the March 1957 issue of Trains magazine. The picture, made by the late Don Wood, shows a Grand Central Terminal trainboard at the gate heralding the departure of NH train 2, the Owl. In that era, the Owl was the premier all-Pullman overnight train between New York and Boston. (It was not the only New York–Boston overnighter, as NH also ran the Narragansett, a mail-coach-sleeper train that respectfully departed GCT 15 minutes after the Owl.)

In 1967 I was in New York Central’s management-training program under the supervision of R. D. Timpany. This was the dawn of the computer era in the railroad industry, a direction firmly embraced by the NYC (President Alfred E. Perlman even created a Vice President of Cybernetics position before 99 percent of the world and 99.9 percent of the New York Central even knew what the term meant), and we were installing a computer-based payroll system for the Maintenance of Way, Mechanical, and Signal departments. We trainees were drafted to help educate supervisors on how the new system worked, and this meant travel from headquarters in New York City all over the railroad. One of my assignments was Boston.

At the time, public travel options between New York and Boston included flying, a bus, or the New Haven Railroad either via Springfield, Mass. — the long way around — or the main line through New London, Connecticut, and Providence, Rhode Island. I chose the latter option, although I’m sure my boss would have preferred otherwise, as passenger trains were a dirty word on the NYC. Nevertheless, I booked passage on the Owl.

The railroads had recently instituted something called the Home Road Pass Plan in a move to get rid of the pass department and its associated paperwork. Under that system, all one did was show his pass to the foreign-road ticket agent and you got half fare. As I recall, the New Haven was a signatory to the pact. So, on the appointed evening, I presented myself, pass in hand, to a ticket agent at Grand Central and paid for a lower berth to Boston. The fare came to $20.78 (in a coach it was $15.39).

In the heyday of the 
20th Century Limited and trans-Atlantic liners, it was chic to have dinner in Manhattan, drinks at the Oyster Bar in Grand Central, and proceed to your accommodations. But by 1967 the Century as well as the greyhounds of the sea were on their way to Valhalla. All was not lost, however, as the Oyster Bar and the Owl remained — smoldering embers of a different age. Not wishing to offend the gods of the high iron, I headed for the Oyster Bar to celebrate my impending New Haven adventure — after all, it was a road that I had never ridden, and the NYC was footing the bill. About 11 p.m. I walked to the gate, which still announced the Owl in the grand manner, just as in the Trains photo. The sleepers were open at 10 p.m. and the train left at 12:40 a.m. Arrival at Boston’s South Station was at 6:50 a.m., but you could stay aboard until 8.

My section accommodation, itself an anachronism in 1967, was in a 6-section/4-double-bedroom/6-roomette car, one of an order of 11 
Beach-series sleepers built by Pullman-Standard in 1955. By this late date, the Owl carried coaches in addition to sleeping cars. However, the New Haven was still part of the Pullman Company empire, unlike the NYC and Pennsylvania, which had taken over operation of their own sleepers. As I recall, that night’s Owl had two sleepers, two coaches, and a couple of head-end cars. I was ushered into my clean lower berth, complete with crisp white linen sheets, and was sound asleep before departure.

I woke up once during the night (I have no idea where), and it seemed we were gliding on air. Despite the fact that the New Haven was in rough seas financially, the track was impeccable — far better than anything on NYC’s Water Level Route. My friend Henry Frick, a BNSF train dispatcher with whom I worked toward the end of my career, was from New Haven territory. He knew the road well, and says I was not dreaming about the ride, but whether it was the quality of the track or the quality of the car is probably an open question. In any event, it was the smoothest ride I have ever experienced except for a Mitropa sleeper years later on a Berlin–Paris train.

Arrival at South Station was to the minute, and in plenty of time to attend my instructional duties. I returned to New York the next afternoon on another New Haven legend: the 
Merchants Limited, in a parlor-car seat, no less. The ride was just as smooth, validating my impressions from the night before.

My employer merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad in February 1968. As a condition of the merger, Penn Central was forced to absorb the New Haven, which it did in January 1969. The 
Owl came off the following month. One could still book a sleeper between New York and Boston, but the car was handled both ways by PC’s Federal, a through train to/from Washington that operated via Penn Station.

Henry had his 
Owl memories too. He rode the train in September 1968 from Grand Central to Boston in a bedroom, also in a Beach car. He told me he saw the Owl the last week it operated: just one FL9 locomotive and three forlorn cars.

Amtrak never reinstated overnight New York-Boston service as such. It did run a Boston-Washington sleeper on a train called the Night Owl, which appeared in the November 1972 timetable and was more a reincarnation of the Federal, not the Owl. Indeed, its Gotham times were not conducive to the overnight New York-Boston market, as it left Penn Station in the wee hours in both directions. I had occasion to ride it several times while in the employ of Amtrak, but the ambience and romance of the old New Haven was missing. It just was not the same.

First published in Spring 2012 Classic Trains magazine.

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8 thoughts on “Smoldering embers of a different age

  1. There was a problem with the heritage 10-6 cars: they did not have retention tanks. If you used the commode, then flushed it, the contents went straight down and out. Out on the right of way it was one thing (unless you were in a MOW gang). but in Penn Station it was quite another. The soultion was to place a “honey bucket” under each commode of each car set out for occupancy. How’s THAT job sound? When the two prototype Viewliner sleepers were not testing, they and their retention tanks were used on the WAS-NYP sleepers.

  2. Back in the 1980s, I frequently had occasion to travel at night from Poughkeepsie NY to Baltimore, which meant taking the ex-NYC to GCT, then a taxi to Penn Station for an overnight ride on Amtrak’s Owl. The set-out 10-6 sleeper was available for occupancy as early as 10 pm — but it wasn’t announced or posted on the station’s Solari split-flap arrivals/departure boards, one had to be in the know and ask an agent, who would escort you to the gate and unlock it. I would be fast asleep well before the train left in the wee hours of the morning, arriving in Baltimore around 7 am. I loved the convenience and comfort. Too bad today’s coach-only version offers no such indulgence.

  3. Folks, for what it is worth, the NHRHTA’s latest Shoreliner magazine (Volume 41 Issue 3) has an article on the history of the NH’s 6-4-6 “Beach”-series sleepers mentioned in this essay. In it, there are several tables showing how these cars were used on the NH, including on The Owl.

    And Amtrak’s Night Owl was not the only Amtrak sleeper operation on the Boston to New York run. The Twilight Shoreliner used a customized Viewliner sleeper and cafe, and the train ran from 7/10/1997 to 4/28/2003 before being replaced with the Federal (which as merged with the Amtrak Regional brand on 4/26/2004 without a sleeper).

  4. In NYC’s case, the trains were literally going to Valhalla, and you can get there, still, from Grand Central. It’s on the Harlem Line.

    Thanks for a great story of a once common event, that now lives only in the memory of us old timers. It was a vastly different, more civilized time.

  5. I, too, remember a pleasant trip on Amtrak’s Night Owl, from Washington, D.C. to Boston. No Oyster Bar at Union Station, but lots of decent choices both in the station and in the neighborhood for a good evening meal, after which I went down to one of the lower (through) platforms, boarded my sleeper, shut the door on my roomette, and slept soundly all the way until just outside Providence, when I was awaked for (a full) breakfast, which was taken in the adjacent cafe car. Best thing was that after a full day’s work in D.C., I arrived in Boston fully refreshed, before the start of the next day’s business, and I had saved a night’s hotel bill to boot! Good memories of a time likely never to return. Pity.

  6. When Amtrak foolishly extended its OWL to Richmond VA (thus destroying the time convenience to the large DC business-oriented travel market), it inadvertently made the northbound NYC departure time plausible for Boston-destined travelers on the OWL. On two occasions in the late 1990s, a colleague and I returned to Boston after a days work in NYC. There is no GCT Oyster Bar in Penn Station, but we did get to use the Metroliner/Acela lounge (whatever they were calling it then).

  7. Great article! Checking in to see if any of you remember my dad, John F. Barry, Data Processing Manager. He worked at the NYC Building next to Grand Central Station from 1964 to 1968 when the PC merger required we move to Indianapolis. I remember visiting several times, an entire floor dedicated to data processing (a giant CPU, tons of reel to reel tape drives, and punch cards). Probably had less capability than the cell phone in my pocket! Thanks, John Barry.

  8. Gwyer’s mention of the NYC Operating Management Trainee program, R. D. Timpany, and riding another railroad on NYC’s dime brought back some fond memories as I, too, was a Central trainee in 1967. My first memory along these lines was when I celebrated being hired by Uncle Bob, as we called him, by taking a roomette on the Broad Way Limited back to my home in Pittsburgh. (I had booked a lesser PRR train from Pittsburgh to New York.) Yes, NYC picked up the tab for my PRR trip.

    And mention of the Century’s being on the way to Valhalla reminded me of a December, 1967 meeting in New York assigning a group of trainees to shepherding the new Empire Service between NYC and Buffalo. Mr. Timpany began the meeting with the announcement, “Gentlemen, the Twentieth Century Limited is dead. We will NOT have a moment’s silence for its passing.” He then took a long drink from the water glass at his place at the head of the table; the rest of us, of course, sat in silence.

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