Article: Vanderbilt's Ride To Chicago (from Detroit) - 1878

As reported in the Detroit Free Press on June 27, 1878

Editor's Note: This trip was made immediately after the Vanderbilt family took control of the Michigan Central at a Board meeting in Detroit. Click here for that article.

A few seconds before 6 o'clock Tuesday morning the private car of William H. Vanderbilt and party pulled out from the Michigan Central depot at Detroit, destined for Chicago.

General Manager Ledyard had told the boys, that is to say - Conductor W.W. Dickerson, Engineer Thomas Kent and Trainman N. Vanderpool - to be ready at the drop of the hat to pull out. The wave of Mr. Ledyard's hand started the train, and the black smoke from the stack of the locomotive instantly spread out into a long plume, brightened at certain points by the white flakes of steam from the hissing pipes - a feather in shape and appearance whose respective increased in length, but had seemingly not time to widen or disappear as the swift locomotive turned round the first curve and fairly entered upon its journey.

The coal was rounded up on the tender to the last shovelful. "Tom Kent," said Conductor Dickerson, "is one of the oldest and most careful engineers on the road. He's itching to make a good run of it. I hope they'll give him the chance".

The Grand Trunk Junction was reached in the usual time allotted in the city ordinance and then a wait "for orders." The train was an extra one, to be run special and no point was to be made until it was assured that the coming and going regular trains were out of the way. This wait the fireman improved, and when the word was again given to go the safety valve bubbled discordantly and the feather of smoke had changed from a black with white edges to a white shaded down with denser hues.

Everybody on board is engrossed in his morning's Free Press. The gathering crowds about the stations peer into the windows and the open doors of the car. They wish to see who is who. It's a good time to note down whom we have aboard. Here is the list and rank:

  • William H. Vanderbilt, President of the New York Central & Hudson River (NYC&HS), the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern (LS&MS) and the Michigan Central (MC) railroads.
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt, First Vice President of the NYC&HR and Treasurer of the Canada Southern (CS) and the MC.
  • William K. Vanderbilt, second Vice-President of the NYC&HR, Director of the CS and the MC.
  • Augustus Schell, Director and member of the Executive Committees of the LS&MS and the MC.
  • Edwin D. Worcester, Director of the MC, Secretary of the NYC&HR, and the MC, Secretary and Treasurer of the LS&MS.
  • James Tillinghast, General Superintendent of the NYC&HS and President of the CS.
  • John Newell, General Manager of the LS&MS.
  • Anson Stager, one of the General Superintendents of the Western Union Telegraph Company and Director of the MC.
  • James Mason, General Counsel of the LS&MS railroad.
  • Webster Wagner, President of the Wagner Sleeping Car Company.
  • Capt. Jacob H. Vanderbilt, an old steam boatman and uncle to William H. Vanderbilt.
  • Henry B. Ledyard, General Manager of the MC.
  • A.H. Winfield, Superintendent of the Wagner Sleeping Car.

Meantime the cook, a most important individual, described by Mr. Worcester as a French cook of Ethiopian extraction, and his two assistants were most busily employed. The savory odors of broiled chicken and fragrant coffee, mingled with the fresh morning air, and ravishing omelets and crispy Saratoga potatoes were dexterously manipulated upon the range. Truly the cook with his red Arab fez, bared black arms and overflowing shite apron was an important personage. He did more indeed to attract the public eye than his potent master and quite conscious of the great part he was playing, flourished about giant butcher knives, steaming kettles and smoking gridirons. 

The pantry men spread the table and laid it with decorated china, colored in a gorgeous renaissance pattern.

At length Dickerson came bounding down with his orders, Kent read and comprehended them, and away we go. A double track, steel rails, level grade, straight course, and fifteen miles to Wayne Junction.

"Breakfast," says "James," Mr. Vanderbilt's valet and eight of the gentlemen first named sat down, Mr. Worcester remaining to do the honors of the second table.

It must be that Tom Kent has caused a waiter to spill something in his walk, for presently there comes an order to run slower. Kent has his eye forward on the track and his attention cannot be attracted without ringing the bell, which it is unadvisable to do. Conductor Dickerson does not hesitate. He opens the forward door and climbs the tender. What a whirlwind of air was that which rushed through, sweeping papers from the hands of readers. The papers, however, have no attraction compared with the beholding of the bold feat of Dickerson in clambering along, the heaped coal pile in the tender. He does it safety, though, and returns.

"It is goo bad," says Winfield, "to slow off how when Tom has so good a track to show what he can do." However, the time he makes is by no means slow, and although a halt is made at the Wayne Crossing, the train checked up in going through Ypsilanti, the devious Huron is crossed six times and Ann Arbor is reached, and the party have not yet completed breakfast.

Thirty-seven miles from Detroit, with two stops and the "city limits" speed enforced, made in fifty-three minutes. But Tom Kent is not happy; "99" can do better than that, and he knows it.

This winding Huron is a beautiful stream, and the sixteen times the railroad crosses it in going eighteen miles adds to its picturesqueness. Mr. Worcester, though it is years since he passed over the MC, recognizes all the points upon the road. He has a map of Michigan, and for that matter of the entire railway system of America in his mind's eye, and his early experience freshens in his memory as place after place is passed.

Crowds at every station, despite the early hour, stand discreetly back from the tornado which the passing train throws off. "Take care," shouts a schoolboy at Dexter to his companion; "Keep away - it'll draw you in." The atmospherical disturbance caused by the speed with which the car moves seems, in truth, quite capable of drawing a small boy after it.

"Stop at Jackson Junction." Very good. The smokers have fairly kindled their cigars after breakfast before Tom draws up in good style at Jackson Junction. Some of the six miles just east of it have been timed at fifty-eight seconds; one of them at fifty-seven seconds.

The party disembarked at Jackson and take a stroll through the shops. Assistant General Superintendent Brown is introduced. The machinists and boiler makers and blacksmiths and painters are all busily engaged. "The clink of hammers closing rivets up" is overpowering.

"Beautiful, beautiful," says Capt. Jacob Vanderbilt. Didn't think 'twas possible to find such a place out West."

Perhaps as keen an interest is shown in this matter by Messrs. Newell and Tillinghast as by any. All the party appreciate the work.

Even the philosophical Augustus Schell pauses and notes with attention the irresistible working of a pair of iron shears. They have a relentless edge and come down like fate.

Mr. Worcester is a man of great observation and has decided taste for mechanics. His knowledge in this department excites surprise; the workmen appreciate it too.

William H. Vanderbilt notes and questions as he passes. Not the first time that he has inspected shops of this character. His judgment is not at fault when he pronounced it good.

A ponderous wrecking crane mounted on a flat car attracts attention; many approving comments are made. "With that now," says Mr. Nowell, "you can lift a locomotive from out of a ditch."

"Yes, sir, easily enough" answers Mr. Ledyard.

Mr. Edgerly, master mechanic, is introduced. Mr. Vanderbilt takes to him at once; a congenial spirit, Edgerly knows the cost of everything in the shop. We take in the roundhouse - sixty stalls for locomotives and every stall filled; every locomotive blacked and varnished - that was a sight for a railroad man. Edgerly pointed out one of the most powerful looking engines. "She cost fifty-eight hundred and twenty-eight dollars as she stands," he remarks.

"Fifty-eight hundred?" says Vanderbilt. All the party pronounce it good. Capt. Jacob especially admires it. As an old steamboat man he knows a good engine when he sees one.

Cornelius Vanderbilt looks at the buildings and their equipment. Evidently a most observing man; he finds the ground of cinders smooth, hard and dry, and commends it.

The host of train men not on duty gather about the cars. John McCurdy, the oldest passenger engineer on the road and one of the best, has hitched on his number 186. His friends are the friends of Tom Kent, but they don't quite all agree as to the capacity of the two engines. This run is to settle the matter - if the engineers are allowed to do their best.

Superintendent Brown will remain at Jackson he says, to personally look after the running of trains. He wants to be sure the road is clear and will delegate that duty to no one.

While Master Mechanic Edgerly is engaging the attention of Mr. Vanderbilt, suppose we look at the cars. In the furry of leaving Detroit, at the snap of the finger as it were, no one considered the cars. A man before breakfast and early in the morning is not apt to be in such a good humor as after he has stayed his stomach. The sunshine illumines and the genial air encourages out of door observations.

First, and next to the engine, is the car of General Manager Newell. It is names the "Stella" and though fitted up with a spacious bed-chamber, toilet, convenience, chairs, tables, etc., is not large nor richly furnished. It is most comfortably arranged.

The car "Vanderbilt" is of great length. It has at one end a range, next adjoining a pantry, refrigerator or store-room, then a retiring room or bedroom. The next apartment is a parlor, or dining room; the next office or lounging room; lastly a broad platform, deep, covered and extended at the sides, veranda like.

Bentwood chairs, for him that will sit in this veranda and look out upon the smiling country or the black hand of road-bed, cut through the green of the fields - a figured ribbon cross-barred with ties and colored quite distinct from the cultivated soil that gives blooming promise of bountiful crops on either side. Let us not forget the car in this attractive glance at this vision of our beautiful peninsula. Upholstered chairs and lounges within, mirrors, and broad plate glass windows. Outside a rich chrome yellow colors the panels. The center, in old English text, is the name "Vanderbilt". Near the ends on each side are fine paintings representing respectively the Grand Central depot at New York, Albany, Niagara Falls and a portion of Cleveland.

Quickly aboard now and away. Mr. Vanderbilt and Augustus Schell, Capt. Jacob H., and his nephew William K. Vanderbilt sit down to a game of whist. The partners are as above. The game engrosses the attention of the participants, and they continue at it until the table is needed for dinner. Better skill or better fortune attend Mr. Vanderbilt and his partner, Mr. Schell. Such a ripe old fashioned laugh as re-echoes through the car as William H. contemplates the results of some successful strategy. One could easily think that to capture a trick and lay out his adversaries gave him more pleasure than to acquire the Michigan Central. Certainly his achievements in this direction were more demonstrative. It is but fair to say that Capt. Jacob chuckles merrily when luck changed right, which was not too often, as William H. and Mr. Schell evidently carried much tonnage on a more even keel.

Senator Wagner and his adjutant, Winfield, were in discourse in the forward car. Near them were Stager and Mason. In the rear compartment of the Vanderbilt car were Messrs. Tillinghast, Nowell and Ledyard; on the rear platform Cornelius Vanderbilt, Edwin D. Worcester and the Free Press correspondent.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is said to have many of the characteristics of his grandfather, the commodore. He has a comprehensive mind for business, is a good judge of character, and withal an affable gentleman. His popularity is great among the railroad men in New York City, and he is usually a weekly visitor at, and most liberal patron to, the Railroad Temperance Union meetings. Four years ago he inspected the English system of managing and equipping railroads, and is very well informed concerning the precritical details of railroading.

Edwin D. Worcester was without doubt one of the most active men of the party. He displays an indefatigable energy, and has a marvelously quick and accurate comprehension of affairs. His judgement is very rarely at fault, and like his knowledge of facts and figures, and his memory for matters concerning railroads and finance, very rarely impugned. His matters are very agreeable, and his conversation interesting and witty. It appeared to fall to his lot to write and receive all the telegrams during the trip. The writing of them was no slight manual task, for they were numerous. Mr. Worcester disregards the motion of a car in writing and uses a pencil as skillfully as a conductor under like joggling circumstances.

What about railroad matters, says the reader. Nothing. Not a work, except such as related to experiences interchanged by the General Managers of the great roads represented.

Cornelius Vanderbilt and E.D. Worcester reiterated the substance of their remarks the day before to the Free Press reporter. It is doubtful if anything beyond the general outline of the policy has yet been determined upon. The questions of minor detail and of changes will not come up for some time, and will probably be made after better experience is gained regarding the road and its exact place in the Vanderbilt lines.

To sum up the ride: The run From Kalamazoo to Niles, 48 miles, was made in 53 minutes; from Niles to Michigan City, 37 miles in 40 minutes. At Michigan City, Henry Freeman with engine 192, took the train to Chicago, 56 miles in 1 hour and 58 minutes; 40 minutes of this was compulsory.

The run of 284 miles was made entire in seven hours and fifteen minutes, which includes eighteen stops made at crossings, etc.

The train reached Chicago at a quarter past 1 p.m. Carriages took Mr. Vanderbilt and party to the Grand Pacific Hotel. Subsequently most of the gentlemen were driven about the city.

William H. Vanderbilt and Capt. Jacob H. Vanderbilt remained at the hotel and about 4 o'clock quietly took seats in the office where they continued for a long time unobserved. Capt. Jacob had never been West before and he was forced to conclude that this was a great country and Chicago a great town. Shortly after 4 o'clock William H. and his uncle, Jacob, quietly walked over to the Lake Shore depot and looked after things in their own way.

The party retired early, as at 7 o'clock it was their determination to start for New York over the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern and to make a speedy run.

The cook laid in some fresh vegetables, strawberries, and early peaches from the land of Egypt, otherwise known as Southern Illinois.

The Run From Chicago to Buffalo

Special Dispatch to the Detroit Free Press.

Buffalo, June 26. The Vanderbilt special, via Lake Shore, left Chicago at 7 o'clock this morning. Air Line Junction (west of Toledo) was reached at 12:50 p.m. The train arrived at Cleveland three minutes past 3, and left at four minutes past 4; arrived at Erie at 5:48 and left at 5:57; arrived at Buffalo at 8:26. A fast run was made from Cleveland to Erie, the distance, 95 miles, having been run in 104 minutes. The whole run was exceedingly good one, a distance of 539 miles having been made in 13 hours and 26 minutes, including stops, an average of a trifle over 40 miles an hour. Excluding stops the average was 45 miles. In the run from Cleveland to Erie 55 miles per hour was averaged, and more than a mile a minute was repeatedly made.





The following sources are utilized in this website. [SOURCE-YEAR-MMDD-PG]:

  • [AAB| = All Aboard!, by Willis Dunbar, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids ©1969.
  • [AAN] = Alpena Argus newspaper.
  • [AARQJ] = American Association of Railroads Quiz Jr. pamphlet. © 1956
  • [AATHA] = Ann Arbor Railroad Technical and Historical Association newsletter "The Double A"
  • [AB] = Information provided at Michigan History Conference from Andrew Bailey, Port Huron, MI

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