What do Lawrence of Arabia, Mata Hari, Leo Tolstoy and Marlene Dietrich have in common? They were among the 20th century’s most fascinating figures—and over the years, each experienced the opulence of the Orient Express. The famous train threaded its way from Paris to Istanbul, playing host to spies, dignitaries, artists, and presidents along the way.

But why was the train so famous—and how did it gain its reputation for intrigue and mystery? The story involves a brilliant entrepreneur with an ambitious vision for world travel and a knack for luxury, a world hungry for a better way to travel, and an American innovation translated for a glittering clientele.

The story of the Orient Express begins in the 1860s, when the concept of globetrotting tourism was still new. For years, the ultra-rich had been the only people who could afford to travel through Europe. And though railroads were introduced in the first half of the 19th century, they were often dirty and uncomfortable and jostled along fragmented routes that often ground to a halt at the continent’s many international borders.

George Nagelmackers, 1845-1905. (Credit: Public Domain)
Public Domain
George Nagelmackers, 1845-1905.

As rail travel expanded, luxury hotels began to pop up to cater to travelers’ needs. But it took an entrepreneur named Georges Nagelmackers to combine trains and hotels in Europe. Nagelmackers was a member of a prominent Belgian banking family and had investments in European railroads. After the Civil War, his family sent him to the United States in an effort to help him get over a failed romance with his cousin—and while on an extended vacation, he fell in love.

The object of his affection wasn’t a woman; it was a train. While European travelers chugged along in sooty, jostling trains, Americans were beginning to travel in Pullman cars. These train cars, invented by George Pullman, were specially designed for long-distance travel. The hotel-like cars were clean and staffed by friendly workers who catered to passengers’ comfort. And they contained something European trains did not: beds.

Nagelmackers became fascinated by this comfortable mode of travel and even approached Pullman with a proposal to become his partner and spread his cars through Europe. When Pullman rejected him, Nagelmackers returned to Europe with a plan: copy Pullman and make his own, even more luxurious, train.

Saloon car on the Orient Express, 1895. (Credit: The Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Print Collector/Getty Images
Saloon car on the Orient Express, 1895.

He was briefly thwarted by the Franco-Prussian War, but by 1873 he had formed his own company, the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. Nagelmackers wasn’t content with the idea of mere sleeper cars. He wanted to create something entirely new: a luxury travel experience that swept passengers from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople) without stopping at borders. To do so, he recruited a powerful ally: King Leopold II of Belgium. The king was a notorious railroad enthusiast with family ties to some of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, and he helped Nagelmackers get permission to run his trains across international borders without interference.

In 1883, the opulent train the press dubbed the “Orient Express” made its maiden voyage. (It only went part of the eventual route due to infrastructure challenges.) It was unlike any other train Europe had ever seen. Instead of soot and bad service, it had gleaming wood surfaces, plush seats, and beds with silk sheets that rivaled those found in hotels. Inside was a restaurant that served fancy dishes like oysters and caviar, and musicians serenaded the passengers as they sped over borders.

It was an intoxicating combination and one that proved irresistible to Europe’s most well-heeled passengers. (Poorer passengers were out of luck; in its early years a single trip on the train cost a quarter of an average Frenchman’s annual income.) By 1889, the train’s Ottoman Empire infrastructure was completed and it went all the way to Constantinople. And though it never went all the way to the Orient—and Nagelmackers’s company added and changed multiple routes over the years—its name suggested glamour and intrigue.

The Orient Express at the Salzburg station. (Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)
Culture Club/Getty Images
The Orient Express at the Salzburg station.

This was in part due to another kind of clientele: spies. Over the years, the train was nicknamed “Spies’ Express” because of the comfort and convenience, it offered people like Rober Baden-Powell, a British spy who also founded the Boy Scouts, and Mata Hari, who took the train during her European dance tour. It became famous for its fictional spies, too, like James Bond, who took the train in Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia With Love.

Today, the train is perhaps most famous as the setting for Agatha Christie’s classic murder mystery, Murder on the Orient Express. There was at least one murder on the train; in 1950, the body of an American naval attaché was discovered in a tunnel along the route, but the murder remained unsolved. But for the most part, the train was famous for the exploits of its famous passengers, like King Leopold, who had a private car on the train just for his mistress, or Josephine Baker, who gave an impromptu concert to wounded passengers after a 1931 accident.

Nagelmackers’s train made its last full journey in 1977, and though copycat train lines still exist in Europe, they’ve never matched the opulence and mystery of the original. The Orient Express may be dead, but its reputation is still very much alive. Just the mention of its name brings to mind luxury, speed and intrigue—and that’s the way Nagelmackers would have wanted it.