How did early railroads feed coach passengers?

Published: 2017-04-20 - By: Jenna
Last updated on: 2022-02-07
visibility: Public
Amtrak Acela Express Runs on Dunkin'

Earlier this week, Amtrak announced that Acela Express first class travelers and Acela Cafe patrons will now be able to order Dunkin' Donuts signature hot coffee (original and decaf blends) while riding on the Northeast Corridor (Boston to D.C.) route. Northeast Regional service is expected to follow suit sometime later this year.

Bachmann Acela Cafe in TroveStar N Scale Model Trains DB

To be sure, many Acela passengers welcome this announcement (and are probably wondering when Amtrak will add Boston Kreme and chocolate frosted donuts to its menu).

There was a time, however, when train passengers had to deboard trains in order to get a glass of water, let alone a cup of Joe while riding the rails. This begs the question: How did early railroads provide refreshments to coach passengers?

Early railroads considered food service a luxury and as most rail trips were short during the first half of the 19th century, coach passengers were expected to dine before or after their trip or bring their own refreshments on board.

Wilmington -- 15 minutes for breakfast!
Initially, eating houses located at railroad junction points provided meals and beverages for coach passengers. Once traffic increased, railroads established so-called dining stations or refreshment saloons along town lines.

These eating establishments provided meals that ranged from very good to inedible. Even if the food was appetizing, this system of feeding train passengers proved inconvenient not only to the railroads but to passengers as well. To make it possible for passengers to disembark and frequent these eateries, trains were delayed by as much as an hour each day and passengers had to scramble off coach cars and quickly eat before the train pulled out of the station.

Ten minutes for refreshments

Copyright by The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Inc., which was formed in 1863. This picture illustrates the rushed nature of eating in railroad refreshment saloons). Illustration courtesy of "The Railroad Passenger Car" by August Mencken

This system became somewhat less hectic once railroads began to use the electric telegraph (developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse and other inventors) to transmit information quickly over long distances. Conductors were known to canvass passengers and find out how many would be ordering meals at the next eatery. He would then share this information via telegraph with the local dining station and with any luck the correct number of meals would be ready and waiting for rail passengers.

Shortcomings and Stale Bread
Despite these efforts, this system of feeding coach passengers was still fraught with shortcomings. A June 10th 1857 "New York Times" article said the following about refreshment saloons: "If there is any word in the English language more shamefully misused than another, it is the word refreshment, as applied to the hurry scurry of eating and drinking at railroad stations. The dreary places in which the painful and unhealthy performances take place are called Refreshment Saloons, but there could not be a more inappropriate designation for such abominations of desolation . . . "

This article points out that rail travelers barely, if at all, had a chance to wash their hands before taking part in their meals, which might consist of "a choice fried ham and eggs or tough beefsteak soaked in bad butter, tea, coffee, stale bread . . . the bewildered traveler makes a hasty grab at whatever comes within reach, and hurries back to his seat, to discover before he reaches the end of his journey, that he has laid the foundation for a fit of dyspepsia, which may lead to a disease of the lungs or a fever." (Text courtesy of "The Railroad Passenger Car" by August Mencken.)