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The Overland Limited

July 2024
7min read

Its diners were sumptuous, its sleepers luxurious, its lounges a rendezvous for the nation’s notables. And it even made a regular gambling stop at Reno

When, in July, 1947, the Southern Pacific trains Nos. 27 and 28, the Overland Limited, disappeared from the schedule under that title, one of the great, romantic names of the Old West began to slip quietly into oblivion. The San Francisco Overland, which took its place, was hardly the proud, all-Pullman varnish run of de luxe implications that had come into being on the Southern Pacific’s timetables in 1899, flashing between San Francisco and Chicago on the fastest known schedules, with the names of the great and powerful of the earth on its sailing lists. What remained was a cross-country train of ordinary vintage that was to undergo successive stages of downgrading until, today, it is nothing but an overnight stub run from Oakland, California, to Ogden, Utah, operating only in the summer and at Christmas-time. It is all too familiar a story in the recent history of American railroads.

But, although the Overland Limited is now stabled in the roundhouses of eternity, there was a time when no name in the lexicon of the Old West had greater power to flutter pulses and evoke the images of a more spacious time in the American legend. In it was implied the whole roll call of continental dimension and manifest destiny, which was only thirty years old when the first Overland ran west out of Ogden into the setting sun over the Nevada salt Oats, fts syllables had about them the ring of authority that was possessed by those of Wells Fargo and Union Pacific. Like the Shining Mountains, it glittered in the recollections of men: the peer, in the incomparable heraldry of the trans-Mississippi, of the Little Hig Horn, Wounded Knee, and the Santa Fe Trail.

The inaugural run of the Overland Limited, which then bore the train numbers 1 and 2 to indicate that it was a flagship of the various carriers over which it operated, was on October 15, 1899, and may well have been inspired by Edward H. Harriman, who was already in control of the Union Pacific and was shortly to acquire the Southern Pacific as well. It traversed the rails of the Chicago & North Western • from Chicago to Omaha, and those of the Union Pacific as far as Ogden, where it became the pride of the Southern Pacific. Travel agents everywhere were urged to route their patrons to California via the Overland. “They will discover in it the ne plus ultra of travel luxury,” read the company’s promotional literature.

• Later this pan of Hie ruute lollowed the Milwaukee Road.

The Overland was named, of course, for the midcontinental route that it followed to California, the Great Central Overland & Pike’s Peak trace that had been worn smooth by covered wagons and by the romantic riders of the Pony Express. All the way across Nebraska the wagon ruts were still visible when the first Overland whistled out of Omaha, and in Wyoming and Utah they ran for miles no farther removed than the ends of the ties. In Echo Canyon and Weber Canyon the Union Pacific construction crews had guided their teams where, only a few years before, the covered wagons had lumbered, and through the Nevada Humboldt, the old trail was never far from the windows of the palace tars until, at Fort Churchill, it diverged and went south to cross the Sierra below Carson City.

In the glorious noontide of its operations as an extra-fare, all-Pullman limited flyer—that is to say, during the Harriman regime and until well into the third decade of this century—the Overland’s equipment was specially outshopped for it by Pullman and bore the train’s name as well as that of its owning carriers on its nameboards. Sleepers such as Glenview and Dakota , and proud, brass-railed observation lounges such as Dynamene , were household words to transcontinental travellers. Its diners were the last word in splendor both gustatory and decorative, its buffets were felt to be almost Babylonish in their voluptuous appointments, and there was a barber, a ladies’ maid, and showers for both sexes aboard. So great was the demand for space on the Overland in the late 1920’s that for a time it ran in several sections, and there was also an Advance Overland Limited, just as for some years on the New York Central there was an Advance Twentieth Century Limited.

Other great name trains were to share the Overland route: the Pacific Express, the Pacific Limited, the San Francisco Limited, the Forty-Niner, and the City of San Francisco; but none shared the resounding implications of its name. On its Pullmans slept, ate, and were gentled with vintage wines and Havana Puros the great of the world: J. P. Morgan and Robert Ingersoll, James Gordon Bennett and John W. Mackay, Sir Edwin Arnold and Mile. Emma Nevada, Ethel Barrymore and Elihu Root, President William McKinley and Enrico Caruso. Only the Twentieth Century Limited knew the tread of as many celebrities. But the New York Central maintained a careful record of its passengers—which, alas, was not the western practice.

One discovers only incidentally that Madame Nellie Melba requested the Overland’s dining car steward, as an act of mercy, not to serve her Peach Melba at dinner; that Prince André Poniatowski, son of the master of horse of Napoleon III and a direct descendant of King Stanislaus of Poland, commanded a quart of White Seal champagne to be served in his room each morning before entering the diner in a democratic manner for breakfast; that Gertrude Alherton never emerged from her stateroom at all between Oakland and Chicago. The ghosts of the pioneers along the Overland Trail may well have stared as the Overland Limited blazed its way through the Nevada night in a torrent of red plush and walnut-panelled palace cars loaded with famous passengers.

Much as its cars have been freighted with drama over the decades, they were never more so than on the afternoon of April 19, 1906, the day after the San Francisco earthquake. The Metropolitan Opera Company, including Caruso, Emma Eames, Louise Homer, Plançon, and other top-flight luminaries, had sung Carmen two nights before in what was unwittingly the swan song of a city that would never be the same again. During the terrible hours of April 18 as flames engulfed ever-widening areas, both the St. Francis and the Palace hotels, where the members of the company were stopping, were destroyed, and the singers, orchestra, and executives scattered in refugee groups throughout the town’s parks and other places of safety. Next day, however, word was circulated that the artists were to gather by a given hour at the ferry building, where a steam launch had been procured in the absence of all ferry service. It was to take them to the Overland at the Oakland Mole. Everybody made it—Mme. Homer in her husband’s evening trousers, Pol Plançon immaculate in silk top hat and cutaway tail coat. It was a narrow thing for Caruso, who arrived only after he had displayed an autographed photograph of President Roosevelt to a militia patrol. The private car Adolphus of Adolphus Busch, the St. Louis beer magnate, was on the Overland, but no private car was available on such short notice to the Met singers. They were grateful for any space at all, even upper berths. The train was delayed a few minutes while Campanari, the baritone, was interviewed by the Oakland Tribune . “It is such a change,” Campanari was quoted as saying, a remark described by Walter Lord in The Good Years as the classic understatement produced by one of the greatest of all American calamities. The singers had a fine view of the burning city as the Overland skirted the East Bay on its way out of town.

Although it never partook of the almost unearthly splendor that characterized the red-carpet departures from New York and Chicago of the Twentieth Century Limited in its glory years, entraining on the Overland could still be very much of an event. Many old-time San Franciscans insisted on seeing friends off from the Oakland Mole and crossed the Bay on the ferry to wave farewells as the observation platform faded into the distance. The author recalls making the crossing as late as 1943 with Dudley Field Malone, the venerable divorce lawyer, who bore in his arms a vast bouquet of American Beauty roses for the departing William K. Vanderbilts. Another man would have sent novels or champagne, but to a magnifico of the old school, only roses would do. It was the gesture of a graying gallant. Sometimes, in the days when the Overland went east in the early evening, well-wishers boarded the cars to take dinner with friends in a stateroom or in the diner, disembarking at Martinez to return on a handy local and cross the Bay by moonlight. During Prohibition, enthusiasts were sometimes taken in wine and transported as far as Sacramento or even Reno, much as participants in sailing parties of the era on the Berengaria and Paris sometimes failed to make the gangplank and were carried off to Europe in their dinner clothes.

For a decade or so just previous to the 1941 war, when it was carded on a schedule that called for half an hour in Reno while its cars were serviced and mail and head-end business handled, the Overland arrived in “The Biggest Little City in the World” late in the evening, when Nevada night life was in fullest blast. Knowing travellers got down from the Pullmans as soon as the train pulled into the Reno depot and hastened across Commercial Row to the Bank Club, handiest of the town’s gleaming palaces of chance, for a brief whirl at roulette, dice, or the slot machines. There was also ample time to patronize the Bank Club’s splendid bar.

When it came time to highball, the engineer in the Southern Pacific cab-in-front locomotive which in those days powered No. 27 in its westbound ascent of the Sierra would wind a blast on his whistle, and dealers, keno tippers, pit bosses, and barmen would join in a ringing chorus to shout “Train time, train time,” much as Broadway theatre doormen shout “Curtain going up” at the end of the intermission. The Overland’s passengers would pour from the Bank Club and adjacent saloons on North Center Street, leaking silver dollars as they sprinted for the platform, often carrying their drinks with them, all in agreement that one of the extra dividends of riding the Overland was a brief interlude of high life in the gambling center of the known universe.

The elimination of the Overland Limited was accomplished through two agencies: the disastrous decline in railroad passenger traffic everywhere that characterized the mid-fifties; and the willing, even enthusiastic co-operation of the Southern Pacific, a carrier never in recent years noted for optimism in the field of passenger transport. By 1947 there were four regularly scheduled trains a day between Chicago and California on the Overland route: the Fast Mail, which carried only a rider coach for passengers; the Gold Coast, a train of largely military clientele and such mediocrity of scheduling and equipment that it was widely known as “The Cold Roast”; the streamlined City of San Francisco; and the San Francisco Overland. The Gold Coast died a natural death, and, when the Overland ceased to run east of Ogden, the City absorbed the passenger business between San Francisco and Chicago in its entirety.

Finally, a year ago last July, the Interstate Commerce Commission granted a petition to discontinue even the San Francisco Overland except during summer and Christmas holiday seasons. Meanwhile the Overland Limited found its final repository in the historic annals of the West it had served so long and so usefully, and in the memories of sentimental men and women, where it will run forever, as a name too radiant to die.

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