Mercury (train)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Ticket for a 1938 trip on the Cleveland Mercury
Service typeInter-city rail
LocaleMidwestern United States
First serviceJuly 15, 1936
Last serviceJuly 11, 1959
Former operator(s)New York Central Railroad
TerminiChicago, Illinois (1948, complete circuit)
Cleveland, Ohio (1948, complete circuit)
Service frequencyDaily
Train number(s)75 westbound / 76 eastbound
On-board services
Seating arrangementsCoaches
Catering facilitiesDining service; buffet-lounge car
Observation facilitiesParlor car
Track gauge4 ft 8+12 in (1,435 mm)

Mercury was the name used by the New York Central Railroad for a family of daytime streamliner passenger trains operating between midwestern cities. The Mercury train sets were designed by the noted industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss, and are considered a prime example of Streamline Moderne design. The success of the Mercury led to Dreyfuss getting the commission for the 1938 redesign of the NYC's flagship, the 20th Century Limited, one of the most famous trains in the United States of America.

The first Mercury, operating on a daily roundtrip between Cleveland and Detroit, was introduced on July 15, 1936.[1][2][3][note 1] The Chicago Mercury, between Chicago and Detroit, and the Cincinnati Mercury, between Cincinnati and Detroit, followed.[5] The Mercurys lasted until the 1950s, with the final survivor, the original Cleveland Mercury, making its last run on July 11, 1959.[6]

A fourth train, the James Whitcomb Riley between Chicago and Cincinnati, used the same design for its train sets and is considered part of the Mercury family, although it did not bear the Mercury name. The Riley debuted in 1941 and lasted into the Amtrak era, though no longer a streamliner.[7][8]


In the mid-1930s, the New York Central launched an experiment to enhance its passenger traffic in the midwest. The goal was a new streamlined service focusing on speed and innovation. "Mercury," the name of the Roman god of messengers, was chosen for its connotations of speed; the name was announced to the public on May 14, 1936.[9] The new train was marketed as the "Train of Tomorrow"[10][11] (not to be confused with the General Motors concept train of the same name in the 1940s), reflecting the emphasis on innovation.

In 1934, Dreyfuss gained attention for the New York Central with his streamlined design for the Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive.[12] This was his first railroad design; he was best known for his work on consumer products like telephones, fountain pens, and vacuum cleaners. In 1935, the Central asked him to take on the new project.

Here is his description of how the plan developed:

The final designs were approved ... but when they were put out for bid prices were so out of line that the project was canceled. It was a heavy blow when I received the bad news, for the trains had been a major effort for our office. I decided to take the rest of the day off, and I boarded a train for the country. En route, traveling the railroad yards of Mott Haven, I saw the answer. I got off the train, returned to New York and suggested [to the Central president] that some of the used cars in the yards might be converted. Out of them the successful Mercurys were built at one quarter of the original figure. The Mercurys have been called a turning point in railroad design. They were the first streamliners done as a unit, inside and out, integrating everything from locomotives to dinner china.[13]

The train's first cars were rebuilt from surplus suburban commuter coaches like those that Dreyfuss saw unused.[14]

1936 Railway Age article about the New York Central train, The Mercury. The article contains technical descriptions, descriptions of the train's interior and exterior, and a floor plan for all of its 7 cars.

Locomotive and exterior[edit]

One of the Mercury Hudson locomotives

Of Dreyfuss's railroad designs, the locomotives got the most notice, so much so that his work on passenger cars is often overlooked entirely. For the Mercury, he achieved a streamlined appearance by covering the exterior pipes, whistles, and other fittings in a smooth "bathtub" cowl. The sides of the cowl were cut away to show the driving wheels.

"The ... drivers sported centers painted in aluminum with a black band separating the aluminum discs from the aluminum rim and tire. Dreyfuss had installed three 50-watt and two 15-watt lamps under the cowling on either side to illuminate the drivers and rods. The effect at night was most striking.[15][16]

The lights illuminating the driving wheels was a novel concept and purported to be the first of their kind.[17] The Mercury trains also incorporated roller bearings on their axles,[10] which helped them reach their speed limit of 80 miles per hour (130 km/h), but also made them harder to stop.[18] Although in service the speed would be restricted to 80 mph, it was reported that the train's top speed was over 100 miles per hour (160 km/h).[19]

It has been said that, "As opposed to [some of his] contemporaries, Dreyfuss was not a stylist: he applied common sense and a scientific approach to design problems." However, it can be seen from his treatment of the driving wheels that Dreyfuss was not above paying close attention to merely stylistic, non-functional details.

The exterior of locomotive and cars was medium gray with brushed aluminum trim (though there have been incorrectly colorized images of the Mercury in a light blue livery which never existed[citation needed]). On each side, the passenger cars displayed the Mercury logo in the form of a silver medallion, showing the god Mercury in traditional representation with winged cap and sandals.[20]


For the Mercury, Dreyfuss, approached the design of the train as an integrated whole, interior and exterior, from the locomotive to the rear observation car. His goal was to recreate the atmosphere of a private club.[21] His primary concern toward that end was to mitigate the rigid uniformity and long, narrow form of the conventional railroad car.[22] Although each car was functionally separate, Dreyfuss's design minimized the divisions between cars. He did this partly by having interior sections that spanned car boundaries. For instance, the coach section comprised the rear of the first car, the whole of the second, and the forward part of the third. The kitchen was in the rear of the third, while the dining room was in the following car.

He also sought to integrate the cars by the design of the vestibules.[10] He made each vestibule semi-circular and widened the passageway between cars to 1.60 meters (5 feet, 3 inches). The intended effect, when cars were coupled together, was of a single circular room, like a miniature rotunda.[23] Fabric and rubber buffers between cars and above bogie springs were also added to reduce vibrations.[10]

Within cars, Dreyfuss applied several techniques to break up the space and make it less linear. In the second car, for instance, he interrupted the rows of seating by placing two pairs of seats facing each other across the aisle in the middle of the coach section. Similarly, in the sixth, a parlor car, he broke the seating into two sections with a small private compartment, seating six, in between them. The dining room had three sections. Two of them were conventional seating, but the middle section was made up of tables for two people seated side-by-side, facing the center aisle. The dining car also had a small lounge section, seating six, for people waiting to be seated.[24]

Dreyfuss also applied innovation to the round-ended observation car, a common amenity of premier trains of the time. To maximize the view, he lowered the sills in the observation area by 30 cm (12 inches), allowing 1.23 m (four foot) high windows. Instead of having the seating around the walls, facing in, he placed the seating in the center, facing out towards the windows. There were banquettes for three facing each side, and one for two facing the rear. In an extra touch, a speedometer was built into the center banquette, a reminder of how the Central was marketing speed with the Mercury.[23]

Original train set[edit]

A full train in 1936

The original, Dreyfuss-designed Mercury train set comprised nine cars:[25]

  • Baggage/coach
    • Baggage compartment
    • Smoking compartment – capacity 12
    • Coach section – capacity 40
  • Coach
    • Coach section – capacity 48
    • Smoking compartment – capacity 12
  • Coach/kitchen
    • Coach section – capacity 18
    • Kitchen
    • Pantry
  • Dining
    • Dining room in 3 section – capacity 56
    • Waiting lounge – capacity 6
  • Coach (added after inaugural runs)
    • Coach section – capacity 56
  • Coach (added after inaugural runs)
    • Coach section – capacity 56
  • Lounge
    • Lounge section with bar – capacity 31
  • Parlor
    • Parlor section – capacity 14
    • Private compartment – capacity 6
    • Parlor section – capacity 11
  • Parlor/observation
    • Parlor section – capacity 26
    • Observation section – capacity 11

The cars were modified for Mercury service in New York Central's Beech Grove, Indiana, shops; the first train operated on test runs in June 1936 on a 200-mile (320 km) stretch between Indianapolis and Sheff[26] reaching speeds of 93 miles per hour (150 km/h).[27][28] For the demonstration runs in early July 1936, the two coaches between the dining and lounge cars were omitted.[3][10]

Named trains, itineraries[edit]

  • Mercury, 75-westbound/76-eastbound, Detroit–Toledo–Cleveland, 1936-1942; Chicago-Detroit–Toledo–Cleveland 1942-1949[29]
  • Chicago Mercury, 375-westbound/376-eastbound, Chicago–Kalamazoo–Jackson–Detroit, 1949-1958[30][31]
  • Cleveland Mercury, 75-750-westbound/761-76-eastbound, Detroit–Toledo–Cleveland, 1949-1959[32][33][34]
  • Cincinnati Mercury, 303-southbound/312-northbound: Detroit–Toledo–Bellefontaine–Springfield–Dayton–Cincinnati, beginning and ending this itinerary, all in 1949;[35][36], route and itinerary was succeeded by Queen City (which ended in 1957);
    the Cincinnati Mercury returned in 1951 with these numbers and this route: 421-westbound/424-eastbound (401/402 for final 1956–1957 years): Cincinnati–Dayton–Springfield–Columbus–Cleveland;[37] discontinued, 1957[38]


The inaugural Mercury trainset was taken on an exhibition tour throughout the New York Central system in late June and early July 1936.[10][19] The train was displayed[39] and christened in Indianapolis on June 25,[40] then made exhibit stops from Indianapolis to New York City, where it was displayed for two days at Grand Central Terminal on June 28 and 29.[41] In Chicago, it was estimated that about 17,250 people viewed the train in one day when it was on display on July 6 at LaSalle Street Station.[42]

Revenue service for the Cleveland Mercury, with only a stop in Toledo between its two end points, began on July 15, 1936.[1][2][3] By September 1936, New York Central found that the new Mercury service did not impact the ridership on other trains it operated between those two cities.[43] It proved so popular that another train was built and displayed in Indianapolis in October 1939;[44] it was built for the Chicago Mercury and was introduced in regular service on November 12, 1939.[45][46] These two train sets serviced both Cleveland Mercury and Chicago Mercury service, but the schedule was such that one train set began the day in Cleveland, ran to Detroit as the Cleveland Mercury, and ran from Detroit to Chicago as the Chicago Mercury, while the other set did the reverse run (the eastbound Chicago Mercury arrived in Detroit after its westbound counterpart had left, so the NYC would have needed an extra train set, if it had not shared sets across trains). The Cleveland run was on a 2:50 hour schedule and the Chicago run took 4:45.[47]

The James Whitcomb Riley was introduced on April 28, 1941, running between Cincinnati and Chicago on a 5:15 hour schedule. It was named after the popular poet because of his association with Indiana and Americana. The equipment was basically the same as the other Mercurys, although it was an all-coach train. The Cincinnati Mercury, running between Cincinnati and Detroit on a 6:30 schedule, followed the Riley into service.

After World War II, the Mercury trains were re-equipped with new lightweight cars.[14] In February 1950, the westbound Detroit-Chicago Mercury was suspended due to coal shortages while the eastbound counterpart remained in service. The cancellation was the result of an Interstate Commerce Commission order to all railroads still using coal-powered locomotives to reduce services.[48] Service was restored on the westbound route in March 1950.[49]

The Mercury was touted as one of six convenient passenger trains between Detroit and Chicago (with the Wolverine, Michigan, Twilight, Motor City Special and North Shore Limited) with "departure and arrival times made most convenient for you."[50] The Mercury trains operated at speeds up to 80 miles per hour (130 km/h) throughout their service career.[51]

The Cincinnati Mercury was the first to fall as rail service contracted, eliminated in October 1957.[52] The Chicago Mercury was eliminated in April 1958.[53] The Cleveland Mercury was discontinued on July 11, 1959.

The Riley was retained, although it was no longer a streamliner. In 1971, Amtrak combined the Riley with the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway's George Washington. The combined service was renamed Cardinal in 1977, which is still running to this day.

Accidents and incidents[edit]

Because the trains regularly operated at speeds of 75–80 miles per hour (121–129 km/h), accidents occurred at level crossings along their routes. The Mercury's inaugural run between Detroit and Cleveland saw a collision that killed the automobile's driver.[54] In another accident in Michigan in 1940, the train hit a car at a level crossing, completely destroying the car and killing the driver; the wreckage was pushed about 34 mile (1.2 km) from the scene of the collision.[55] In another incident in Ohio in 1938, a truck crossing the track in front of a Mercury train was struck and thrown several hundred feet from the collision site.[56] The Mercury was also used in an apparent suicide attempt in Niles, Michigan, in December 1940.[57] Not all level crossing collisions led to death, such as happened in 1958 near Millbury, Ohio, when a car stalled on the track in front of the Mercury; the driver and passenger of the car were able to jump before the car was destroyed with only the passenger's coat getting caught and torn off.[51]

The railroad's Commodore Vanderbilt shared part of the route with the Mercury in Ohio. This was a factor in a 1938 collision where the Mercury had hit a car at a crossing, then stopped to investigate; while the Mercury was stopped, the Commodore Vanderbilt, which had been only 5 minutes behind the Mercury by schedule, collided with the rear of the Mercury, resulting in at least 50 people injured, some seriously.[58][59] The engineer of the Vanderbilt had applied the brakes when the signal changed in front of him, but wet rails were attributed as the cause of wheel slipping preventing the Vanderbilt from coming to a stop.[60][61] This was one of several major passenger rail accidents in the United States in 1938, which followed a period of three years when only 10 fare-paying passengers were killed on major rail systems in the country.[62]

The Mercury was also affected by other incidents on the system, such as on July 25, 1957, when a freight train derailed 22 cars at Ceylon in Erie County, Ohio. The derailment scene was severe enough that New York Central rerouted all of its major passenger trains over a lesser-used branch line to bypass the accident. The detour made the Mercury one hour late that day.[63]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ July 13 according to Cook.[4]


  1. ^ a b MDOT 2014, p. 19.
  2. ^ a b "Streamline Train To Link Cleveland, Detroit In 3 Hours". The News-Palladium. Benton Harbor, MI. July 1, 1936. p. 4 – via open access
  3. ^ a b c "Here's Latest in Streamlined Steam Trains". The Times. Munster, IN. July 10, 1936. p. 45 – via open access
  4. ^ Cook 1991, p. 2.
  5. ^ Cook 1991, pp. 7, 10.
  6. ^ Cook 1991, p. 11.
  7. ^ Cook 1991, p. 9.
  8. ^ Sanders, Craig (2003). Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838–1971. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-253-34216-4.
  9. ^ "Streamline Train Named 'Mercury'". Detroit Free Press. May 15, 1936. p. 3 – via open access
  10. ^ a b c d e f "Streamline Train Makes Stop In City". Battle Creek Enquirer. Battle Creek, MI. July 9, 1936. p. 3 – via open access
  11. ^ Cross, A.F. (June 16, 1944). "Tomorrow's Train". The Lethbridge Herald. Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. p. 4 – via open access Reprinted article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.
  12. ^ Drury, George H. (1993). Guide to North American Steam Locomotives. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing Company. p. 271. ISBN 0-89024-206-2.
  13. ^ Dreyfuss, Henry (1955). Designing for People. New York. pp. 111–113.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) (quoted by Cook)
  14. ^ a b Schafer & Welsh 1997, p. 151.
  15. ^ Cook 1991, p. 6.
  16. ^ Railway Age. Vol. 101, no. 19. November 7, 1936. p. 688. {{cite magazine}}: Missing or empty |title= (help) (cited by Cook)
  17. ^ "Mercury Train Due Here Today". Democrat and Chronicle. Rochester, NY. June 26, 1936. p. 24 – via open access
  18. ^ "Railroader Was Fastest Man Between Toledo, Cleveland". The Sandusky Register. Sandusky, Ohio. May 31, 1963. p. 7 – via open access
  19. ^ a b "Streamline Train on Exhibition Tour". The Baltimore Sun. Associated Press. June 26, 1936. p. 16 – via open access
  20. ^ Cook 1991, pp. 5, 22.
  21. ^ Cook 1991, p. 3.
  22. ^ Cook 1991, p. 7.
  23. ^ a b Cook 1991, p. 5.
  24. ^ Cook 1991, pp. 3–5, 20.
  25. ^ Wayner 1972, pp. 22–23.
  26. ^ "New N.Y. Central Train To Be Tested". Reading Times. Reading, PA. June 19, 1936. p. 20 – via open access
  27. ^ Bostwick, Mary E. (June 20, 1936). "New York Central Luxury Streamliner, The Mercury, Attains 93 M.P.H. in Test". The Indianapolis Star. p. 12 – via open access
  28. ^ "New Train Has Unique Design". Journal and Courier. Lafayette, IN. June 19, 1936. p. 8 – via open access
  29. ^ December 1947 New York Central timetable,
  30. ^ April 1949 New York Central timetable, service commenced
  31. ^ April 1958 New York Central timetable, Tables 9, 10
  32. ^ April 1949 New York Central timetable, service commenced
  33. ^ June 1951 New York Central timetable
  34. ^ New York Central timetable, July 12, 1959, dropped from timetable
  35. ^ April 1949 New York Central timetable, Table 27
  36. ^ September 1949 New York Central timetable, train dropped
  37. ^ September 1951 New York Central timetable, Table 23
  38. ^ October 1957 New York Central timetable, Table 23
  39. ^ "Magnificent Railroad Train". The Hancock Democrat. Greenfield, IN. July 2, 1936. p. 1 – via open access
  40. ^ "Mercury Will Have Naming Tomorrow". The Indianapolis Star. June 24, 1936. p. 12 – via open access
  41. ^ "Large Crowd Views New Streamlined Train During 10-Minute Stop-Over Here". The Muncie Morning Star. June 26, 1936. p. 10 – via open access
  42. ^ "N.Y.Central Streamline Train Visited by 17,250". Chicago Tribune. July 7, 1936. p. 23 – via open access
  43. ^ "Railroads Find New Speedsters Boost Revenues". Chicago Tribune. September 7, 1936. p. 38 – via open access
  44. ^ "N.Y. Central Gets New Streamliner". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Brooklyn, NY. October 15, 1939. p. 25 – via open access
  45. ^ "Second Mercury Train To Serve Chicago, Detroit". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. October 31, 1939. p. 24 – via open access
  46. ^ "Maiden Trip of Mercury Is A Reminder of Local 1844 Scene". Marshall Evening Chronicle. Marshall, MI. November 13, 1939. p. 1 – via open access
  47. ^ Cook 1991, pp. 6–9.
  48. ^ "Mercury, West, is Dropped". The News-Palladium. Benton Harbor, MI. February 10, 1950. p. 1 – via open access
  49. ^ "New York Central Restores Service". Lansing State Journal. Lansing, MI. March 9, 1950. p. 1 – via open access
  50. ^ New York Central Railroad (December 4, 1956). "Now! Six Happy Ways to Chicago". Detroit Free Press. p. 23 – via open access
  51. ^ a b "Speeding Train Rips Off Coat". Ironwood Daily Globe. Ironwood, MI. October 21, 1958. p. 6 – via open access
  52. ^ October 1957 New York Central timetable, Table 23
  53. ^ April 1958 New York Central timetable, Tables 9, 10
  54. ^ "'Mercury' Crew To Be Quizzed In Crossing Mishap". Battle Creek Enquirer. Battle Creek, MI. Associated Press. July 16, 1936. p. 1 – via open access
  55. ^ "No Inquest in Crossing Crash". Battle Creek Enquirer. Battle Creek, MI. May 30, 1940. p. 5 – via open access
  56. ^ "Man Killed in Crossing Crash". The Sandusky Register. Sandusky, Ohio. February 10, 1938. p. 2 – via open access
  57. ^ "December". The Herald-Press. Saint Joseph, Michigan. December 31, 1940. p. 120 – via open access
  58. ^ "5 Killed as Auto Crashes Into Train at Crossing Near Hobart; 34 Are Injured in Ohio Wreck". The Indianapolis News. Indianapolis, IN. August 1, 1938. p. 1 – via open access
  59. ^ "Luxury Train Crash Injures 38". Clarion-Ledger. Jackson, MS. August 3, 1938. p. 7 – via open access Includes a photo of the Vanderbilt locomotive against the Mercury observation car.
  60. ^ "Wet Rails Blamed For Train Crash In Ohio, 33 Injured". The St. Louis Star and Times. St. Louis, MO. August 1, 1938. p. 2 – via open access
  61. ^ United Press (August 1, 1938). "71 Hurt When Trains Collide". The Minneapolis Star. Minneapolis, MN. p. 2 – via open access
  62. ^ "10 Killed in New Rail Crash". Carroll Daily Herald. Carroll, Iowa. September 20, 1938. p. 1 – via open access
  63. ^ "Field Day Here: Big Name NYC Trains Travel Fremont Rails". The News-Messenger. Fremont, Ohio. July 26, 1957. p. 1 – via open access

External links[edit]