Published: February 18, 2023
By: Adam Burns
Kansas railroading has always been known for its agricultural business, both historically and today. In the classic era it was served primarily by Union Pacific, Rock Island, and especially the Santa Fe.
These railroads all operated crack passenger trains though the Sunflower State with names like the City of St. Louis (St. Louis - Kansas City - Los Angeles), Rocky Mountain Rocket (Chicago - Denver), Kansas City Rocket (Minneapolis - Kansas City), Twin Star Rocket (Minneapolis - Houston), Super Chief (Chicago - Los Angeles), El Capitan (Chicago - Los Angeles), San Francisco Chief (Chicago - San Francisco), Texas Chief (Chicago - Houston), and many more.
The on-board food services these trains offered was exemplary and rivaled the best cuisine one could find at any restaurant. The Super Chief was Santa Fe's flagship service and Hollywood's elite of the era could often be found aboard the train. A sampling of its menu from 1961 included the following main courses:
The Santa Fe's other top trains previously mentioned offered similar dining options. Union Pacific rivaled the AT&SF in terms of first-class passenger services and one could find just as many Hollywood stars aboard its trains.
Both railroads were quite prosperous and they spared no expense in their long-distance trains. Union Pacific's main courses aboard its City of St. Louis in 1952 included:
The railroad, of course, also had a full serving of side dishes, lunch and breakfast menus, and a la carte options. Today, the heritage railroads Abilene & Smoky Valley and Midland Railway attempt to recreate these experiences with train rides offering dinner during the trip.
This 5.2-mile excursion train (10.4-mile round trip) features a dinner train, typically offered once a month, over former Rock Island trackage. The meal is a chicken dinner prepared by the local Brookville Hotel.
The railroad states advance purchase is necessary to book these particular trips, typically offered on select dates from February through October (on rare occasion, a steam locomotive will pull this train). Please check their website for upcoming events!
The Abilene & Smoky Valley operates over the former Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific's former Salina Branch, which ran from the main line at Herrington to Salina, Kansas.
Today, the segment south of Woodbine is abandoned and the track is out-of-service from Enterprise to Woodbine. Excursions depart from the beautifully restored Rock Island depot in Abilene (built in 1887) and run east to Enterprise, 5.2 miles away.
It is a charming excursion offering views typical of central Kansas with the railroad passing many farms along the way. The train will also cross the Smoky Hill River just before entering Enterprise.
While a steam locomotive is occasionally used (Santa Fe 4-6-2 #3415), trips are usually pulled by a historic diesel, S1 #4, a model built by the American Locomotive in June, 1945 as Delray Connecting #69. It later worked as Hutchinson & Northern Railway Company #4.
The dinner trains are hosted within a restored coach originally built in 1904 for the then-Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway. It has since been converted into a dining car for excursions.
The all-volunteer Midland Railway, based in the eastern Kansas town of Baldwin City, is a popular excursions operating regular excursions from April through October (special holiday events are hosted outside these months).
They have an impressive collection of equipment and operate a railroad that stretches 11 miles along a former Santa Fe branch line between Ottawa and Baldwin City, Kansas, totaling 22-mile round trips.
This trackage was acquired from the Santa Fe in 1987 and began hosting public excursions shortly thereafter. One of their popular trips was the "Kansas Belle Dinner Train" which utilizes four restored dining cars. The railroad's website notes:
"Our three-hour Saturday night evening runs are more formal and romantic, while the Sunday afternoon dinner run is a more casual outing best suited for families with a slightly shorter run time. You may want to enhance your dinner train experience with an optional murder mystery, WWII USO show, or a melodrama."
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the railroad discontinued its dinner train for the 2020 season and has yet to resume these trips.
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It is quite staggering and a must visit!