Throughout much of the twentieth century, travelers within Indiana and those crossing through the state could relax in the dining car of their train, sure of a good meal cooked by one of the rail line’s trained chefs and served by its waiters on the line’s own china.
Railroads competed to offer their passengers the best quality and widest selection of food and drink that could be produced out of the tiny train kitchens and served at its bar and dining room. In 1930, a businessman traveling on the Chicago Indianapolis & Louisville Railroad could enjoy a bourbon or scotch before dinner and smoke a 10-or 15-cent cigar.
A 1932 menu from the same line offered a multi-page booklet from which travelers could read the text of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem “When the Frost is on the Punkin’” as well as William Herschell’s “Ain’t God Good to Indiana,” while pondering what to order from the two-page a la carte menu.
Many probably chose instead the “Special Hoosier Dinner” which offered, for $1.50, soup and crudités, a choice from among seven entrees (including broiled whitefish, braised ox joints en casserole, and fried spring chicken), three side dishes, and five desserts (featuring fresh strawberry or apple pie, both baked in the train’s kitchen), muffins, and choice of beverage.
Even as train travel faded in popularity, rail lines known for their dining, including the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, continued to offer full menus. In the mid-1960s, passengers from East Coast cities on their way to Chicago could enjoy lunch in the dining car as they rode through Indiana. The menu included a selection of sandwiches, a “golden omelet,” or several full entrees such as “roast young turkey” complete with the traditional fixings.
Passengers can still travel to several Indiana cities and towns via train, but the days of beautifully appointed dining cars with menus that rivaled those of many restaurants are gone.
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.
Sources: Indiana Memory Digital Collections; Thomas Greco and Karl Spence, Dining on the B & O (2009)