Long before supersonic jets made it easy to cross the country, train travel was the elegant way to get from place to place in the United States. During the golden age of American trains, their sleek, opulent interiors featured plush seats, porters for your every need and gleaming dining cars. The dining car was the heart of train life, a place for passengers to relax and enjoy a meal in the company of newfound friends. And the food was, by all accounts, delicious. Far from the reheated, packaged meals of today, train chefs prepared food from scratch, from the turtle soup to the spiced nuts.
The earliest days of train travel, however, were anything but posh. Even on longer hauls, in the 1840s passengers were expected to bring their own food aboard or eat at boarding house restaurants along the line. Often these restaurants were located at “water stops,” so called because, in the days of steam locomotion, trains would have to take on water at regular intervals. Isolated water stops were frequent targets of attack by bandits, so it’s no wonder that rail companies quickly adapted to create sanctuaries on the train where passengers could dine in peace.
By the 1870s, the Transcontinental Railroad stretched all the way to California, and with it came a new era of railway dining. The most detailed account of train foods comes from an article in Harper’s Magazine published in 1872 and written by Charles Nordhoff, a prominent journalist of the era. In his travelogue, aptly titled “California: How to Go There, And What to See by the Way,” Nordhoff spoke of train dining in glowing terms: “The cooking is admirable, the service excellent, and the food is various and abundant.” A passenger could dine on broiled muttonchops, breaded veal cutlets and freshly hunted buffalo, washing it all down with a glass of real French champagne. On board the Nickel Plate Railroad, which stretched over the mid-central United States, diners could choose the meal and budget that fit them best, from a 55-cent special of sliced tomatoes and baked beans to finnan haddie à la Delmonico (a smoked haddock dish) for 90 cents.
Even though the railways led to California, dining cars were nonexistent west of Omaha until the 1890s. (The high-tech cars were too costly to chance on dangerous, isolated Western rails.) The lack of food options for travelers led to one of the most enduring images of America’s railway golden age: the Harvey Girls. These women worked as waitresses in the Harvey Houses, restaurant-inns that dotted the Western landscape for decades. Fred Harvey opened the first branch of his Harvey House in 1878, and from then until the automobile age in the 20th century, passengers could count on delicious, high-quality food served in beautiful surroundings. Meals as varied as chicken enchiladas, roast goose with apples and apricot Charlotte were served by the Harvey Girls, clad in long black dresses with voluminous white aprons. Fred Harvey insisted that his serving staff be female, attractive, between the ages of 18 and 30, and, most importantly, unmarried. In return, the staff got free room and board, a generous salary and a one-year employment contract. Often the only young women in rough-and-tumble railroad towns, the Girls were a civilizing force in the Wild West.