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Streamliners: the most beautiful locomotives EVER designed

Nick Knight
A New York Central Mercury train is dwarfed by Cleveland’s Union Station, November 1936.Photograph by J. Baylor Roberts. source

New York Central Railroad first introduced the streamline passenger train, the Mercury, in 1936.

Designed by industrial designer, Henry Dreyfuss, the trains were produced in an Art Deco style and are considered by some to be the most beautiful ever made.

Dreyfuss, born in 1904 in Brooklyn, New York and educated at the Ethical Culture Society’s private Arts High School, served as an apprentice to Norman Bel Geddes, a New York stage designer.

His industrial design consultancy firm, Henry Dreyfuss Associates LLC, has been in business since 1929 as one of the most esteemed in the country.

Dreyfuss was an early proponent of the human factor in design, or ergonomics, and designed for Bell Telephone, John Deere, Hoover, and many others.

He also designed the round thermostat that is in millions of homes today.

His first venture into the design of locomotives was his work on the Commodore Vanderbilt. .This led to the Mercury project with NYC.

The Mercury, named for the Roman messenger god and created to convey the impression of speed and innovation, was put into service to increase passenger commuter traffic in the Great Lakes area between Cleveland and Detroit and made its first roundtrip on 13 July 1936.

A New York Central Mercury train is dwarfed by Cleveland’s Union Station, November 1936.Photograph by J. Baylor Roberts. Photo Credit

A New York Central Mercury train is dwarfed by Cleveland’s Union Station, November 1936.Photograph by J. Baylor Roberts. Photo Credit

Some of the engines that drove the 20th Century Limited, USA’s super trains of the 30s, 40s

Some of the engines that drove the 20th Century Limited, USA’s super trains of the 30s, 40s

Due to the line’s success, two more Mercury trains were added to include Chicago and Cincinnati in 1939.  According to Dreyfuss, the plan developed as follows: “The final designs were approved … but when they were put out for bid prices were so out of line that the project was canceled. It was a heavy blow when I received the bad news, for the trains had been a major effort for our office.

I decided to take the rest of the day off, and I boarded a train for the country. En route, traveling the railroad yards of Mott Haven, I saw the answer. I got off the train, returned to New York and suggested [to the Central president] that some of the used cars in the yards might be converted.

Out of them, the successful Mercurys were built at one-quarter of the original figure.

The Mercury train

The Mercury train

The Mercurys have been called a turning point in railroad design.  They were the first streamliners done as a unit, inside and out, integrating everything from locomotives to dinner china. The exterior looked like a train from the future.

It was painted two-toned grey and trimmed in brushed aluminum with the mercury logo on each side of every car.

The cow catcher, exterior pipes, and fittings were covered while the wheels were accentuated with lights to highlight the linear effect after dark.

The entire train was intended to imitate the atmosphere of a private club.

Ten J2s were given streamlined skins designed by Henry Dreyfuss and ran on the New York – Chicago run starting in 1938

Ten J2s were given streamlined skins designed by Henry Dreyfuss and ran on the New York – Chicago run starting in 1938 Photo Credit

Dreyfuss reduced the divisions between each car by having the coach section in three separate cars with the kitchen and dining room taking up the rear cars.

The seating was broken up into sections with areas for groups and single seats.

There was also a round ended observation car that allowed passengers to take in the view with larger windows and center seating that included a speedometer to allow passengers to observe the speed of the new trains.

Ten J2s were given streamlined skins designed by Henry Dreyfuss.

Ten J2s were given streamlined skins designed by Henry Dreyfuss. Photo Credit

The nine cars included a smoking car with each of the coach sections, a sleeping car, several lounges, one including a bar and a six person private compartment.

They were carpeted in pastel colors, had soft indirect lighting and the new concept of air conditioning.

The Cleveland to Detroit trip was just over one hundred sixty-four miles including a stop in Toledo and took two hours and forty-five minutes at an average speed of sixty miles per hour.

One could leave Detroit at 5:30 pm, eat dinner on the train and arrive in Cleveland by 8:30 pm.

The Mercury line was so successful it lasted well into the 1950s when the age and wear and tear on the equipment eventually made the trains inefficient to operate.

The last Cleveland to Detroit run was made in July of 1959.