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Part 5: Rio Grande Scenic Shops

Rocky Mountain Exploration
Part 5: Rio Grande Scenic Shops

By Jack M. Turner
Photos by John C. Turner

        During our visit to Alamosa John and I were met on the platform by Matthew Abbey, General Manager of the San Luis and Rio Grande Railroad and the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, and were taken on an impromptu tour of the passenger car shops.  At the time of our visit two of the signature cars that the shops had refurbished, former Illinois Central sleeper-observation car “Pontchartrain Club” and former Santa Fe full dome car 510 were parked outside the Alamosa depot for an advertising photo shoot.  The “Pontchartrain Club” was built as a heavyweight coach then rebuilt into a parlor observation car by the IC and named “Mark Beaubien”.  Private owners later converted it to a sleeper-observation and named the car “Eaton”.  The car was further upgraded and painted in IC colors by the current owners who renamed it “Pontchartrain Club”.  The full dome was built in 1954 for the Santa Fe then acquired by the original private Auto-Train Corporation in 1971.  The 510 next served in Holland America Westours “McKinley Explorer” Alaska service for several years wearing the name “Chulitna”.  Today it is named “Sunset View” and is striking in the Illinois Central paint scheme.  The dome interior has been given an elegant appearance with eye-catching seat fabric and crisp white linen tablecloths at each table under the glass dome.  The “Pontchartrain Club” is slated for use on Pullman Rail Journeys service inaugurated in Fall 2012 while “Sunset View” will continue to serve the Rio Grande Scenic whose name is proudly worn on the side of the car.

Pullman sleeper-observation car “Lake Pontchartrain” is parked beside the Alamosa, Colorado depot along with full dome “Sunset View”

Full dome ‘Sunset View”, a veteran of Santa Fe, Auto-Train, and Holland America Westours service, and former Illinois Central observation car “Lake Pontchartrain” at Alamosa

Ed Ellis, President of Iowa Pacific Holdings and Pullman Rail Journeys, stands next to full dome ‘Sunset View”

The dome section of “Sunset View” is ready to greet guests.  Note the “Mardi Gras” observation car and the Rio Grande Scenic shops where Pullman cars are undergoing renovation to the right.

    Inside the shops we were treated to a look at several more passenger cars in various stages of restoration for Pullman Rail Journeys service between Chicago and New Orleans and between Chicago and New York.  Among the cars being renovated is the “Tallahassee”, a former Seaboard (later Seaboard Coast Line) 11 double bedroom sleeper that operated under private ownership after a brief stint with Amtrak in the 1970s.  This car was built by Pullman Standard in 1955 to the same floor plan as the original IC 11 bedroom sleepers.  Inside the bedrooms have been stripped to the bare floor and walls and new décor resembling the car’s original look will offer guests a first class overnight experience.  Nine of the bedrooms feature a crosswise sofa and upper berth while bedrooms B and D have the original sofa seat configuration with the lower bed parallel to the window.  This car will be painted in the beautiful Illinois Central chocolate brown and orange colors and renamed “Baton Rouge” to recreate the name of a former IC 11 bedroom sleeper.  Illinois Central 11 bedroom sleepers were named for cities on its routes which started with the letter “B” such as “Baton Rouge”, Belleville”, “Brookhaven”, etc.  These cars were built by Pullman Standard in 1953 using car plan number 4168A.

The original "Baton Rouge" was an Illinois Central 11 bedroom sleeper.  The car is shown here in the consist of the northbound City of Miami at Fort Lauderdale, FL on December 31, 1970. (Photo by Jack M. Turner)

The 11 bedroom sleeper "Tallahassee", pictured here in private car ownership in the late 1990s, was originally operated by Seaboard Air Line and later was part of the Amtrak fleet.  The dark blue letterboard and name plate were alterations by a private owner.  Today this car is operated by the new Pullman operation using its new name "Baton Rouge". (Photo by Jack M. Turner)

Former Seaboard sleeper “Tallahassee” has been stripped of its stainless siding and is being prepared to be repainted into Illinois Central colors.  The car will be renamed “Baton Rouge”.

A bedroom in the former SAL sleeper “Tallahassee” renovated to its original appearance by the shops in Alamosa.  The bed in this room is parallel to the window.

Another renovated bedroom in the former SAL “Tallahassee” featuring crosswise sofa and beds.
   Two full dome cars also were under renovation in the shop, former Great Northern  “Prairie View” which will be painted in its original GN green and orange colors and given its original GN name, and former Santa Fe (ATSF) full dome 554 which will be named “Summit View”.  The “Prairie View” is intended for charter use once its renovation is complete.  Both cars were operated by the original Auto-Train Corporation and later ran in Holland America service in Alaska.  “Prairie View” was named “Deshka” by HAL while the 554 was named “Ekultna” during its Alaska service.  In all, Iowa Pacific owns nine full dome cars, currently the largest full dome fleet in North America.  Eight of the full domes originally were owned by the ATSF which dubbed the cars “Big Domes” while the “Prairie View” was operated by the GN and known as a “Great Dome”.  Iowa Pacific has named all of the domes in the “View” series inspired by the Great Northern.

Full dome 554 is a former Santa Fe car that later served Auto-Train and Holland America Westours.  This car will be renamed “Summit View”.

    A former Southern Pacific 4 double bedroom, 4 compartment, 2 drawing room sleeper awaits refurbishing and will be named “Grenada” in honor of an IC 4-4-2 sleeper that saw service between Chicago and New Orleans.  The IC named its 4-4-2 sleepers in the “G” series such as “Galena”, “Greenville”, “Grenada”, etc.  These cars used Pullman Standard plan number 4069E.  Another ex-SP sleeper which later was named “Yosemite Falls” is also in the process of being renovated and will be renamed “Golden Mission”. 

A former Southern Pacific sleeping car under renovation.  The small windows near the top of four of the rooms were designed for passengers in the upper berths.

    As we reached the corner of the shop, Matt stated “Welcome home!” as we came upon former Illinois Central observation-club car “Paducah” which was one of two observation cars I rode often on the City of Miami back in the 1960s.  The car was found on a shortline railroad in South Carolina and currently wears a dark blue paint scheme.  The IC diamond tail sign is labeled “City of Myrtle Beach” but the original name will be restored to the sides of the car when it is returned to IC colors.  Stepping inside this car was indeed like stepping back in time as I could imagine turning a chair around to face out the back window as the train pulled out of Miami so long ago.  In honor of the moment, John pulled out his IPOD and played Tommy Roe’s 1960s hit “Hooray For Hazel” which I always associate with riding the City of Miami after hearing it on the observation car’s radio as we departed Miami one day in the mid-sixties.

The northbound City of Miami is shown crossing the New River in Fort Lauderdale, FL
on this playing card from a deck purchased aboard that train in the late 1960s. 
The observation car pictured here was likely either the "Paducah"
or sister "Bamboo Grove" which both were assigned to the City of Miami pool. 
(From Jack M. Turner collection).

Former Great Northern full dome “Prairie View” (left), a former Southern Pacific sleeper being renovated to become “Grenada”, and ex-Illinois Central observation-club car “Paducah” (right) under renovation in the Rio Grande Scenic shops in Alamosa.

    Other sleepers are being renovated in Whiteland, Indiana for the new Pullman service.  Included are a former Milwaukee Road skytop sleeper observation car “Coffee Creek” and a vista dome sleeper that was operated by the Northern Pacific and leased in the winter to Illinois Central for Chicago to Miami service.  The image conscious IC repainted the car each winter to match the rest of the City of Miami then returned it to the NP in its two tone green colors.  The fleet also includes former Chesapeake & Ohio sleeper-observation “Blue Ridge Club” which has been rechristened “Adirondack Club”, former Florida East Coast sleeper “Caparra” (later Canadian National and VIA Rail Canada “Riviere Cloche”) which has been renamed “Chebanse” in honor of an IC 10 roomette-6 bedroom sleeper of the same name.  Illinois Central 10-6 sleepers were named in the “C” series such as “Cairo”, “Carbondale” “Chebanse”, etc.  Several other cars are part of the Iowa Pacific fleet including three other former NP dome sleepers and a few heavyweight cars.

    Pullman Rail Journeys (also known as Pullman Sleeping Car Company) plans to run its cars on the tail end of Amtrak trains linking Chicago with New Orleans and New York.  The experience is intended to provide a level of service above what is offered on regular Amtrak trains today while replicating the fine Pullman service of a bygone era.


Pullman Rail Journeys

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