On an evening in August of 1961 I was one of a few hundred 14-16 year old kids who boarded a train at Seattle’s King Street Station bound for Florida on our first big-time adventure trip.
Although American Airlines had ushered in transcontinental travel on Boeing’s new 707 two years earlier, the heyday of the commercial jet airliner was yet to come and this was still the era of passenger train travel in the U.S.
After digging through old family photo albums and researching the history of the train lines that provided passenger service between the two cities, I believe that the train I rode was the Northern Pacific Railway’s “Mainstreeter” (shown here near Missoula, Montana.
Myself and the other kids (including my buddy Rodney, and my girlfriend Eva — who would “dump” me during the trip) were off on a 3,000 mile-plus journey to Miami Beach where we would be among 14,000 teenagers attending the American Lutheran Church’s five-day International “Luther League” convention. (Only Lutherans would subject themselves to the 90-plus degree heat and 90-plus humidity of August days in South Florida). I recall the convention as being pretty B-O-R-I-N-G overall, although one of the highlights was an address by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Much to my surprise and amusement, while searching the Internet for historical information on the convention I ran across a half-hour long film clip of the convention on one of the Lutheran Church’s Web sites. It had footage showing the kids arriving in Miami by train, being bussed to their hotels, and frolicking — if Lutherans can be said to “frolic” — on the beach, and about two and a half minutes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarks. The rest was mainly B-O-R-I-N-G convention sessions, except for footage of the teens making “fashion” statements with their early ’60′s hairdos and clothing, and finally teens running like hell to catch the train out of Miami after five days of listening to mind-numbing religious babble.
But back to the Chicago part of the trip. After spending two nights riding upright in a day coach eastbound out of Seattle and being force-fed unpalatable “food” (worse than the “C” rations I would eat a few years later while serving in the Air Force) in the “special” dining cars assigned to the Luther Leaguers, the group arrived in Chicago for a two night stay at the Conrad Hilton Hotel (named after the founder of the famous hotel chain and great-grandfather of the Paris Hilton). In 1985, that hotel was renovated and renamed as the Chicago Hilton and Towers, and today another hotel in Chicago owned by the same company is known as the Conrad Chicago.
In addition to having a really fine meal (for a change) in the hotel’s main dining room, we attended a major league baseball game in the evening at Comiskey Park, home of the Chicago White Sox. (At the time, Seattle only had a minor league team, the Seattle Rainiers, named after the Rainier Brewing and Malting Company). Unfortunately, since I was far younger that the legal drinking age and accompanied by adult members of the church, I could only wash down the ballpark fare with Coke rather than any of the premium suds that were brewed in the Windy City.
The trip lasted about two weeks or so. The only overnight stays were in Miami and Chicago, but the group got in some sightseeing in Washington, D.C., at George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, and St. Augustine, Florida. Friends and I hiked all of the way to the top of the Washington Monument (who says kids are smarter than adults), and later chipped in some money to buy our tour bus driver a new joke book (the ones he told were real “groaners”).
Unfortunately, the train made only the briefest of stops after departing Washington, D.C. on the return leg of the trip to Seattle, so there was no further opportunity for sightseeing or decent dining on the way home. If we kids had been lucky enough to be on one of more luxurious trains of the era, such as the Great Northern’s Empire Builder (Amtrak still operates a train by that name between Seattle, Portland and Chicago) or the Northern Pacific’s North Coast Limited, we might have been riding in style and comfort. Finally, after what seemed to have been an interminable journey back to Seattle, we weary teenagers fell off the train swearing never to ride the rails again.
(This story is excerpted from Dick Jordan’s Chicago 2007 trip blog)