Dining On the Railway: The Los Angeles Limited 1948

The Union Pacific Railroad company was part of the first continental railroad project, founded in 1862, and still operates today. During the Golden Age (from the 1900s into the 1940s), the Union Pacific was one of the larger Railroad companies due to the unique travel destinations that their locomotives would carry passengers to. One of these locations was the world famous Sun Valley ski resort which was established by Union Pacific in 1936. Their flagship locomotive, the Los Angeles Limited, would carry these passengers from Los Angeles to Central Idaho where the resort was located.

A unique part of traveling on the Los Angeles Limited was the dining experience on the train. While journeying to their destination, passengers were able to order a multitude of meals such as broiled lamb chops, fried chicken with mashed potatoes, or even a broiled sirloin steak. In order to serve these kinds of meals, they had to be able to keep both meat and dairy fresh and cool for roughly forty five hours — the amount of time it would take to arrive at the destination.

How Did They Do It?

Before the train would depart, the kitchen would make sure they were either stocked up with all of the supplies necessary to make it throughout the trip or until the train was able to stop at a supply terminal — having to stop before reaching the terminal would cost the company, after all. In order to keep all of the food cold and fresh for meals, there were both refrigerators and freezers on the train by 1948. The several ice cream options on the menu indicate that this is the case even though there isn’t much to find about this train in general. Before freezers, there was either a separate car or a space in the kitchen that would be kept cold from harvesting ice. In order to retain cold air, they would insulate these cars by stacking hay in between the ice and the walls of the train. 

The Kitchen

Due to the size of the kitchen, there would be a strict maximum of four people cooking at one time in a dining car. To put it in perspective, the kitchen was around a quarter of the size of the entire dining car (as if trying to prepare a meal on a moving train wasn’t enough). In a 36 passenger dining car, the chef’s preparation space would be somewhere around eight-feet wide and 18-feet long. This meant that everything from food to utensils and table clothes had to be thoughtfully arranged and put away.

In most of these kitchens, the majority of the space that allowed for people to pass through the car was where food was prepared. All of the stoves, ovens, and other counter space to do all of the cooking was pressed up against the wall, leaving the cooks a tiny sliver of space to pass behind their compatriots. The dishwasher and drying racks for silverware and dishes were normally positioned against the back wall. This left the refrigerators and pantries to be located on the opposing side of the kitchen, to protect cold and dry items against the heat of the stove and the moisture from the dishwasher.

The Staff/Train Car Design

Generally, there would be four waiters for each of the dining cars. These employees’ job was simply to serve the passengers — though this would sometimes be tricky, as some of the dining cars on the flagship Union Pacific Railway locomotives would have upper level seating. There were a total of ten dome cars built by the American Car and Foundry company made for Union Pacific. These cars would sit 24 passengers in the upper dome area and 36 passengers in the bottom area. Passengers sitting in the top part of the dome would be able to look out and see the sights as they traveled through the mountains, accommodating for a luxurious and scenic journey.

Who Was Riding This Train?

Items on menus often give us a good indication of the socioeconomic status of the individuals who participate in certain dining locales. Seeing how expensive the food on this particular menu was, we can tell that the people who would take this trip were more than likely wealthy families. For example, the featured Union Pacific Menu offered both broiled lamb chops and sirloin steaks at top dollar — and there would be a fine print at the bottom that would read, “Parents may share their portions with children with no extra charge.”

This gives the impression that the people who are traveling on the Union Pacific Railway were wealthy families, likely going on vacation since the train traveled to Sun Valley Ski Resort. It’s also extremely possible that the passengers who partook in dining cars were white, with very little exceptions. This menu was from a 1948 train ride, which was years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act had prohibited the discrimination against race and integrated the United States. While people of color could still ride on the train in a separate car, the additional (and severe) cost of the railway’s dining likely would make the overall cost of the ride too expensive.

Written By: Emma Smithers

Originally Published: December 11th, 2021 || Last Updated: April 11th, 2022

A part of Doc Studio’s History of Food in America Collection

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