The New York Central made its splash into the streamliner craze not long after the Burlington's Zephyr and Union Pacific's M-10000. Dubbed the Mercury this eye-catching train was not exactly a brand new streamliner. Instead of spending millions for a company to either build it such a train or do as the Milwaukee Road and have its own forces construct one from the ground up, the NYC decided to go the conservative route and piece together a consist from dated heavyweight cars. While the train was not new, thanks to the help of a noted industrial design the train proved to be very successful with the public and was quite stunning once it rolled out into the public. Overall, the streamliner was such a hit that New York Central would go on to fleet several similar trains by various names. The original was eventually dubbed the Cleveland Mercury and remained in service until the 1950s.
As the Union Pacific kicked off the streamliner craze in February, 1934 with its M-10000 trainset and the Burlington followed with its incredibly popular Pioneer Zephyr other railroads quickly realized the importance and valuable publicity such trains offered. For those lines strong enough to immediately spend resources on either building or buying their own streamliners they had the added benefit of seeing their trains hit the rails before the onset of World War II in 1941. For the New York Central it too wanted to get in on the excitement but management at the time was quite frugal and thus reluctant to spend vast resources for a new design concept that may or may not prove successful.
Instead, the NYC went searching for dated heavyweight equipment around its system to create its own "new" streamliner (the actual equipment turned out to be commuter cars built in the 1920s). This was not exactly a novel concept, even at that time, as the Baltimore & Ohio did something similar when it overhauled its Royal Blue in the mid-1930s. In any event, the NYC came up with a seven-car consist and went to work redesigning the cars into a streamlined appearance. While the railroad did not rebuild the cars from the ground up it did carry out a massive overhaul on them. This was all done at the company's shops in Indianapolis, Indiana. The interior work was thanks to Henry Dreyfuss, an industrial design who applied his self-described "cleanlining" approach to transform the cars into elegant works of art.
After Dreyfuss was finished the train carried a similar look the legendary 20th Century Limited he designed a few years later. The Mercury carried clean looks with pastels, carpeting, sealed windows, indirect lighting, and the new technology of air-conditioning (which actually became a quite common feature on early streamliners of the 1930s). Of course, as to be expected, the train featured much Art Deco throughout. Overall, the seven-car consist included a parlor, coaches, a diner, lounge, and observation car (which, with wide windows and a round-ended design gave the train a very nice "finished" appearance). From an exterior standpoint the train also closely resembled the 20th Century Limited with its use of a two-tone gray livery.
For power the NYC chose one of its K Class 4-6-2 Pacifics (as another means of reducing costs). However, this was no ordinary steam locomotive thanks to the work done by the company's shop forces in Albany, New York. The locomotive was completely shrouded in streamlining as well, thanks to Dreyfuss, that matched the train perfectly with a bullet nose. Additionally, the locomotive featured the two-tone gray livery to match the cars as well as chrome trim. Despite all of the streamlining Dreyfuss elected to leave the wheels and driving rods exposed allowing the public to see the mighty machine hard at work. Finally, in one of the most innovative ideas to perhaps ever be used on a streamlined steam locomotive, Dreyfuss added lighting to the wheels enabling everyone to see them in motion at night! For more information, including timetables, regarding NYC's various passenger services please click here.
The train hit the rails on June 25, 1936 and while the New York Central may have taken the frugal approach to its streamliner the train's end effect on the public was the same, amazed and awed. The train would travel around the NYC's system for the next few months before being placed in regular service between Cleveland and Detroit. The corridor was 164 miles in length and the Mercury could complete the trip in about 2 hours and 45 minutes with one stopover in Toledo along the way. Just as other lines had experienced, demand for the train was so great that the New York Central soon added new cars to the original's consist. Additionally, it also debuted a new version, the Chicago Mercury between Detroit and Chicago. The original train was later renamed as the Cleveland Mercury and Detroit Mercury as new versions were added to the NYC's fleet. The railroad continued to run the original consist until the aging equipment was finally pulled from service in the mid-1950s.