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The Dining Car

Until the late 19th Century, railroad trains did not have dining cars. Train stations had restaurants or food stands, but the food was often of poor quality. When the train stopped for water or fuel, passengers had to get off to get a bite to eat. It could be a hurried affair as passengers raced to get their food and get back on the train before it left without them.

As the railroads began to stretch across the vast western landscapes, with few stops offering food, the railroads realized that good food would help keep their passengers happy. Consequently, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe built Harvey Houses along the Chicago to Los Angeles main line. The Harvey House restaurants catered primarily to the railroad passengers.

Other railroads devised an alternative solution -- dining cars. On this date in 1890, the Dickinson Press told its readers about the magic of the dining car. It was an experience like no other. One passenger related that for breakfast he had a trout, a game bird, strawberries and cream, rolls, butter, coffee, and a glass of milk. The entire meal cost one dollar. He was quite sure that, had he gone shopping, he could not have purchased either the trout or the game bird alone for that price.

The railroads vied with each other to provide the most lavish meals, even though they knew the dining car was a losing proposition. Flagship trains like the City of New Orleans, the Super Chief, and the Empire Builder became known for dining cars that could compete with the fanciest five-star restaurants. Later trains offered domed dining cars, with passengers eating on the second level and enjoying spectacular views. The railroads knew that passengers would often choose to travel on a railroad based on the quality of the dining car. In fact, some passengers rode the trains only for the meal, using it as a traveling restaurant. After they ate, they would get on another train and go home again. What the railroads lost on the food they made up for in ticket sales.

By the 1990s railroads gave up on dining cars, replacing them with snack cars and vending machines. But many tourist lines still offer the rare treat of a fine meal in a traveling restaurant.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher.

Sources:

Dickinson Press. “Cost of Railroad Dining.” Dickinson ND. 30 August 1890. Page 1.

American Rails. “The Dining Car.” https://www.american-rails.com/diner.html  Accessed 10 July 2018

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