Santa Fe El Capitan lounge lives on as Coast Starlight Pacific Parlour Car

Other than baggage cars, only a few cars now operating on Amtrak operated on the streamliners of the 1950s: Amtrak diners on the Silver Meteor, Silver Star, Crescent, and Lake Shore Limited, and the Coast Starlight’s “Pacific Parlour Cars,” pictured below. DSCI1469 DSCI1470 DSCI1471 DSCI1472These cars spent the first 16 years of their lives (1955-1971) as the “Top of the Cap” lounge car on the Hi-level El Capitan, an all coach Chicago-LA train that was the forerunner of Amtrak’s Superliners. Now these formerly Santa Fe cars, completely remodeled, run on Amtrak’s Starlight as diner-lounges for sleeping car passengers only. They provide a wonderful chance to experience a version of the diner-lounges of yesteryear that ran on so many trains, among them the Erie’s and the Nickel Plate’s Chicago-New York trains, the Rio Grande Prospector, and the Soo Laker.

Interestingly, no train in American history took the route of the Coast Starlight. Southern Pacific’s West Coast Limited, their train between LA and Portland with through Seattle sleepers, took the San Joaquin Valley route south of Sacramento. The West Coast Limited was never streamlined, and was replaced, as far as through Seattle-Portland-LA travel was concerned, by the overnight Cascade connecting to the San Joaquin Daylight or by the Shasta Daylight connecting to the overnight Owl (which took the valley route). The connection was made at Martinez. The Cascade carried several through sleepers from Seattle to Oakland. Seattle passengers choosing the Shasta Daylight-Owl connection traveled by a “pool train” overnight between Seattle and Portland.

Below, one of the now-Pacific Parlour Cars in the consist of the Santa Fe El Capitan at, I believe, San Bernadino.


Below is the same car in a publicity photo on a postcard from a packet sold on board El Capitan and other Santa Fe trains by the news agents.


Below is El Capitan seen from beyond the last car (a coach). Stan Kistler photo from Zimmerman, Santa Fe Streamliners: The Chiefs and their Tribesmen.  Compare the similarity in look to the Amtrak Empire Builder seen from beyond its last car.

In the foreground of the Empire Builder shot is the Charles Clegg to my Lucius Beebe. The trip was less than a month ago but already I’ve forgotten which station stop this is. Williston, I believe. From LA to Miami, we rode the Starlight to the Builder to the Capital to the Meteor in roomettes, an accommodation that would have been an “enclosed section” on the 1930s City of LA or Super Chief, among other trains of that distant time.



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3 Responses to Santa Fe El Capitan lounge lives on as Coast Starlight Pacific Parlour Car

  1. Janet Fritch says:

    Thrilling to see that the El Capitan is alive and well. My trip to LA from Chicago was amazing in the late 50’s.

  2. Thomas Peterson says:

    As a 10 year old I rode the El Capitan from Chicago to Los Angeles and back in August of `63. What a great experience for a kid! I remember it like it was yesterday!

  3. Norm Anderson says:

    Excellent article!! I would offer one observation– the b&w night photo of the El Capitan’s exterior is taken, I believe, at Barstow, not San Bernardino. The white square turrets above the roofline of the train belong to the massive “Casa Del Desierto” that served as passenger depot, Harvey House lunchroom, and crew hotel. That looks like locomotive exhaust in the distance . . . if it is, then this is westbound Train No. 17, and it is about 4:30 in the morning.

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