Ghosts-The Streamliner

The Streamliner

In the first two-thirds of the 20th Century, people traveled by train.

The railroad was the fabric of American life; not only the standard method of transportation for goods and people, but a symbol of American expansionism and the fast-disappearing myth of the West.

By 1939, the new, modern class of Streamliner was an Art Deco-styled engineering marvel, modeled on the great ocean liners of the period, a luxury ship that sailed over the rails like the SS Normandie plowed through waves.

No individual train was more famous—or infamous—than
the City of San Francisco.

The City of San Francisco

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The City of San Francisco streamliner was born in 1936. Operated by three different railroad companies between San Francisco and Chicago: Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Chicago and Northwestern Railway, she was the fastest thing on the rails, and the Southern Pacific’s most famous train.  But in 1939, the streamliner earned a reputation for ill-luck, as well as luxury …

1939 Derailment

On August 12, 1939, in the desolate desert landscape outside Harney, Nevada, the pride of Southern Pacific’s fleet derailed. Cars in the nearly quarter-mile long train consist were smashed and crumpled like aluminum toys, sent over an embankment and into the Humboldt River. 24 people died; 121 were injured. Five cars were totaled.


Southern Pacific claimed it was sabotage; disgruntled workers or even Nazi spies had moved a rail and forced the train off the tracks. Eventually, over twenty men were arrested but never charged. The fact that train passengers had experienced abnormally high speed leading up to the accident—and that the engineer told the fireman he’d make up a 26 minute delay by throttling across Nevada—was found not to be a factor …in an inquiry conducted by Southern Pacific itself.


The case has never been officially solved. Whether brought about by sabotage or speed, it is this tragic accident to which Miranda refers in CITY OF GHOSTS.

Part of a British Pathe newsreel covering the derailment, the first major accident for a U.S. streamliner.

Selling the Streamliner

The streamliner was synonymous with white glove and top hat travel … fast, modern, beautiful and, above all, luxurious. Sleek and sinuous, gleaming with chrome and color, she was also competing with the image of the “Old West” train, the coal and diesel big-hearted railroads that spoke eloquently to American myth and nostalgia, and on which much of the country still relied.

Railroad companies designed and marketed these trains not as trains, but rather as ocean liners on land, more akin to the great ships of Cunard and Matson than her lowly iron brethren.  As you can see in the promotional pamphlet below, even the trips the City of San Francisco made across the rugged West were termed “sailings”.  This was the hook used to sell the idea of the streamliner, until her day, too, passed into twilight.

The City of San Francisco Today

City of San FranciscoThe days of rapid yet luxurious travel are far behind us. Where once the mighty railroads plowed through snow and ice and ran like quicksilver down mountain valleys, are now freeways and tollways. The airplane supplanted the train, and economy supplanted luxury.
Amtrak is still here, though; in fact, much of the route of the City of San Francisco is still intact, a memorable train ride waiting to be recreated.

Even one of the former cars—the “Civic Center”—is still extant, sitting on the tracks at the Millbrae Train Museum outside of San Francisco. If you’re ever in the Bay Area, stop by for a visit. In the meantime you can check out photos used in Kelli’s research for CITY OF GHOSTS by going to the Photo Gallery.