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Postmark Amtrak


June 28, 2013

Although we live in a world where near-instant communication is possible via the telephone, email, Facebook, Twitter and other social media resources, the traditional paper postcard still holds a special appeal more than 140 years after it was invented by the Austro-Hungarian post office in 1869. For many people, including young children, postcard writing and receiving remains a fun way to keep in touch with friends and share one’s adventures.

Amtrak ran extra trains to accommodate tourists headed to
Spokane, Wash. for Expo '74.

When introduced at the end of the 19th century, the postcard’s appeal was readily apparent. For a small fee, the writer could send a brief message across town or across oceans. Early postcards were really just prepaid cards that allowed for the message to be written on one side with the address on the other. As marketers and artists started filling one side with imagery, the space for the message shrank until 1902 when the British postal system developed the divided back postcard still used today. The image occupies the front, while the message and address share the back.

According to one survey of postcard art, “view cards” showing town and village scenes were the most popular among the public and collectors at the dawn of the 20th century. English humorist Jerome K. Jerome pointed out that among vacationers, some scenes were more popular than others: “The cunning and the strong secure the best cards. The weak and courteous [would] be left with pictures of post offices and railway stations.” Unless, of course, you admired railroads and sought out the depot cards with purpose.

Over the years, Amtrak has produced postcards to highlight trains, scenery along the routes, new equipment and services available on board. Postcards were primarily sold at stations and on long-distance trains, distributed as promotional items at special events or provided as a complimentary gift to sleeping car passengers.

A family takes a photo while the special Expo '74 stops at
Wenatchee, Wash. in June 1974.

One of the earliest postcards in the Amtrak Archives was made to celebrate Expo ’74 held in Spokane, Wash. from May to November of that year. The Expo focused attention on the nascent environmental movement through the theme of “Celebrating Tomorrow’s Fresh New Environment.” This seemed especially fitting as Amtrak ridership hit its highest mark to date with 18.5 million passengers. Many were new riders who gave the train a try due to the 1973-1974 OPEC Oil Embargo and resulting gasoline shortages.

The city transformed two islands in the river—covered with railroad tracks and industrial buildings—into festive fairgrounds. Ten nations, including the Soviet Union, Germany, Canada and Japan, opened exhibitions. In the “Joy of Living” pavilion devoted to exhibits about “today’s lifestyles,” fairgoers could visit the Amtrak display to learn about the new company, which had only begun operations three years earlier. In that time, Amtrak had developed a national reservations system, refurbished cars purchased from the predecessor railroads and hired and trained new employees. It had much to share with the public, many of whom didn’t know much about the nation’s passenger rail system.

The Broadway Limited at Horseshoe Curve outside Altoona, Pa.

Attendees learned about Amtrak through a mock-up of a rail car that included seating and dining areas. Amtrak employees were on hand to answer questions about accommodations, destinations and train travel in general. Over the course of six months, more than 1 million people visited the Amtrak display—approximately 20 percent of all fairgoers. Nearby, they could have viewed exhibits from Union Pacific Railroad and United Airlines. And if the dozens of pavilions were too much, visitors could take a break to enjoy live entertainment from the likes of Diana Ross, Gordon Lightfoot, Bill Cosby and Bob Hope.

Amtrak augmented its summer train schedules to accommodate an expected increase in Spokane-bound tourists. The city was already served by the daily Empire Builder (Chicago-Havre-Seattle) and thrice-weekly North Coast Hiawatha (Chicago-Billings-Seattle), but both arrived late in the evening. The latter was run daily for the duration of the fair, while the special Expo ’74, a daylight all-coach train, was introduced between Seattle and Spokane.

An EMD E9A locomotive in Phase I livery
leads the Coast Starlight.

At first, a postcard of Cinderella’s Castle doesn’t seem to fit with the others in the collection—but popular Walt Disney World is easily accessible from the historic Orlando station. The card fit into wider Amtrak efforts to market Florida travel through the Week of Wheels in Florida, Florida Carrousel and Villa Vacation packages, which generally combined Amtrak travel with car and housing rentals. Today, the Auto Train is a popular option for families wishing to visit Florida attractions because they can take their cars along for the journey and avoid notorious I-95 traffic.

Many postcards feature beauty shots of trains in very scenic locales: the Broadway Limited at famed Horseshoe Curve as fall foliage dots the hills with patches of gold, orange and yellow; the Desert Wind traveling through Cajon Pass in southern California; and the Coast Starlight along the Pacific Coast, the scene bathed in soft pinks, oranges and light purples, making it difficult to tell where sky and water begin. Encouraging wanderlust, they make you want to book a train ticket now.

Those more interested in locomotives and rolling stock will find a lot to love, as the postcards chronicle changes in the Amtrak fleet over more than four decades. EMD E9As purchased from the predecessor railroads pull the Coast Starlight and Super Chief (or possibly the Southwest Limited); both engines feature the Phase I paint scheme with the bright red hood.

Top: Turboliners were introduced on the Chicago-St. Louis route
in 1973. Bottom: This Heritage Dining car was decorated with birds
and latticework.

F40PHs in the Phase III livery feature prominently in a series of postcards produced in the late 1980s or early 1990s. One image, probably taken along the Connecticut coast, shows a train with Amfleet coach cars gliding past beach houses and gently rolling surf—beckoning the lucky recipient to join in the seaside fun. Even a Turboliner makes a postcard appearance. Based on the French ANF gas-turbine T 2000 RTG, it was capable of reaching speeds up to 125 mph. Initially introduced on the Chicago-St. Louis route in late 1973, it later spread to others emanating from the Chicago hub.

Amtrak postcards also feature train interiors such as the dining car. Against an elegant interior decorated with birds and latticework, tables draped in white linens are dressed with blue and white china. Engaged in animated conversation, well dressed men and women enjoy entrees, side salads and rolls. The blue china on the table, including the sugar bowl and bud vase, was made by the Hall China Company of Ohio and is often referred to as the “Amtrak National” pattern.

For their buyers and recipients, these postcards were just a souvenir of a fun journey or a way to say “hello” to friends and family. With the benefit of time and distance, they become for us a welcome window into our past, the small details a delight.


Background and quotes on the history of the postcard are drawn from:

Klich, Lynda, and Weiss, Benjamin (2012). The Postcard Age: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Boston, MA: MFA Publications (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

Expo '74 photo courtesy of the National Archives, Record Group 412 (DOCUMERICA: The Environmental Protection Agency's Program to Photographically Document Subjects of Environmental Concern, 1972 - 1977).

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