Saturday, September 23, 2017

An Enduring Symbol: The Sunset Limited

“Sunset Limited March” by Henry Bartell, 1910
Sheet music published by McKinley Music Co., Chicago and New York
In 1894, the Southern Pacific inaugurated its premier train, the Sunset Limited, which ran between San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New Orleans (with SP steamship connections to New York). Its name invoked a romantic vision of westward migration from cold and dreary Eastern winters to California’s balmy and healthful year-round climate, fragrant orange groves, and crashing surf, gilded each evening by the setting sun. So deeply were Southern Pacific’s trains associated with the California dream that a sunset behind a receding train track became the corporate logo.

French Quarter New Orleans-style lounge car, undated
            Courtesy, Los Angeles Union Station Historical Society

In 1950, a new, streamlined Sunset Limited was introduced. Clad entirely in polished stainless steel, it featured a “French Quarter” New Orleans–style lounge car painted in watermelon red, an “Audubon” dining car with birds painted on the ceiling, and a “Pride of Texas” ranch-decor coffee shop car.

The Route of the Sunset Limited
Published in The New Sunset Limited: 42 Hours New Orleans-Los Angeles
(Southern Pacific, 1952)
Courtesy, Los Angeles Union Station Historical Society
Eventually, the Sunset Limited’s route was curtailed to run only from Los Angeles (via Palm Springs) to New Orleans—a route that came into favor among the Hollywood crowd, who had a newfound fascination with the desert spa city that blossomed each winter. The Sunset Limited became such a travel institution that when a government-funded entity, Amtrak, took over operation of money-losing passenger trains across the country in 1971, they continued to serve this historic route.
Sunset Limited Amtrak Poster
Both the outcome of an ingenious marketing campaign and evidence of the public’s romance with rail travel, the Sunset Limited still brings riders into Los Angeles’s Union Station every week. It is the oldest named train in the United States and has adapted and persevered over the past 123 years.
History Keepers: Eleven Stories That Moved Los Angeles
The story of the Sunset Limited is represented in History Keepers: Eleven Stories That Moved Los Angeles, on view at the El Tranquilo Gallery on Olvera Street at El Pueblo National Monument in Los Angeles from August 4 to October 1, 2017. 
Contributing institution of this story to History Keepers: Eleven That Moved Los Angeles: Los Angeles Union Station Historical Society. The Los Angeles Union Station Historical Society holds a divers and comprehensive collection of Union Station memorabilia, including photos, postcards, railroad artifacts, uniform regalia, building relics, and vintage souvenirs.

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