All Aboard

The Tailgate Train

College Football: The Tailgate Train

At five o’clock sharp, a mechanical reverberation rumbled under the passengers’ feet as the engineer eased forward the throttle on the locomotive’s great diesel turbines. Soon, with a gentle groan, a thousand tons of steel painted in the orange and brown livery of the Illinois Central inched slowly ahead, commencing a rhythmic metallic cadence that increased steadily as the Union Passenger Terminal receded and the early evening lights of New Orleans flickered on. Minutes later, the train paused for a moment to collect ticket holders waiting on the platform in the damp evening by the Fontainbleau Hotel, but was soon on its way towards Baton Rouge for an 8 pm kickoff against rival Ole Miss and a Halloween game that everyone aboard would talk about for decades to come.

Much has changed about the way we get to the game in the 60 years that have elapsed since that October night in 1959, when Billy Cannon made his famous Heisman-cementing touchdown run during LSU’s muddy 7-3 victory over Mississippi. Interstate 10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge was still incomplete, leaving Airline Highway as the only viable thoroughfare for sitting helplessly in gameday traffic. For LSU fans living in the Crescent City, by far the most carefree and elegant solution was to board one of the “Football Specials” that served every home game.

The scene on board evoked the smokier, dressier 1950s; a sequence of freeze frames burned in the historical imagination like those conjured by Matthew Weiner for the hit television drama Mad Men. An Illinois Central cocktail menu from 1956 underscores this impression with its old-school offerings. Neither tinctures, nor eyedroppers, nor handlebar-mustachioed men answering to the appellation “mixologist” seem to have been aboard. Instead, there was a total of three cocktails; the martini, Manhattan and old fashioned headed the list, joined by “mixed drinks” including the Collins mix triplets (vodka, rum and Tom), gin and tonic, bourbon three ways (bonded, straight or blended), Scotch and Canadian whisky — all served to the customer in miniature single-serve bottles we associate today with air travel, and all costing between 70 cents and a dollar. Fifteen cents more bought a highball filled with soda water and ice cubes. “Refreshments available,” noted an advertisement, “both to and from the game.”

The drink menu contained other options that so often rest uneasily on one’s constitution when consumed in volume, particularly when paired with motion, that they give today’s reader pause. These included a 70-cent split of frighteningly domestic sauternes, as well as sugary brandies like Benedictine, plus crème de menthe. Perhaps this is why, prominently displayed just below lemonade and above “an assortment of fine cigars,” one found a selection of remedies including a 25-cent box of aspirin, single doses of Alka-Seltzer and, for more serious ailments, Bromo Seltzer. The latter enjoyed a particularly strong reputation as a hangover cure, a status due in no small part to the presence of its namesake ingredient, sodium bromide — part of the family of bromide tranquilizers the USDA banned in 1975 for their toxicity. (A reformulated Bromo Seltzer is still on the market today.) The real danger came most often in the form of overindulgence. As one rider of the period recalled, “In those days Early Times and Coke was the drink of choice. No wonder everyone got sick!”

Football Special trains had been around since the invention of the game itself and even featured in LSU’s inaugural season in 1893. In what may have been the first Football Special to ever run in the state, a group called Cadets of the Ole War Skule took a reserved train to New Orleans for a contest against Tulane University at a time when football was a brand-new sensation in Louisiana. The teams played at the Crescent City Baseball Park, which stood across the New Basin Canal from Metairie Cemetery on what was then the verdant rim of the city’s human inhabitation. Tulane won 34-0, but the game was a bit different back then, with touchdowns worth only four points and field goals worth two. Indeed, a lot of what we take for granted about football remained in a formative phase for the next 25 years. The cadets rumbled home on the Illinois Central, resolved to perform better in the future. In 1914, a Southern Pacific Special pulled into Opelousas carrying a team from the long-vanished St. Charles College, once a Jesuit school in Grand Coteau. The college’s brass band led the team to Comeau Park for the first-ever football game to be played in the town.

The annual “Battle of the Rag” between Tulane and LSU stood as one of the longer-running traditions in college football until it ended in 2009. Special trains for this rivalry were popular both in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, with the destination alternating each year. An aerial photograph of LSU’s campus from 1931 shows a spur and platform due south of the stadium where today the Military Science Building stands. This platform had vanished by the 1950s, requiring fans to get off the train a little further away and walk across a field to Tiger Stadium. One passenger remembered the ride to the 1961 game as featuring the “usual booze and cards,” but the ride back seemed to take “much longer” after Tulane’s 62-0 drubbing.

So many people rode the Football Special out of New Orleans for the Tulane-LSU game that it possibly even had implications for the 1965 mayoral race. At least that is how Jimmy Fitzmorris saw it. “People don’t realize the importance of the individual vote,” he noted. “On that particular day, Tulane was playing LSU in Baton Rouge, and there were 10 trains that were taking people to Baton Rouge. Ten trains. Figure…1,500, 2,000 people on these trains.” Fitzmorris, who considered the Uptown Tulane fans to be the core of his base, lost to Vic Schiro by a mere 256 votes. The irony was that Fitzmorris had been an railroad executive before entering politics.

Unlike the relatively short hop between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the Football Specials that carried teams and their fans to the stadiums of distant opponents took on characteristics of an odyssey not suited to the meek, and highlight the stark differences — between that era and our own — of comparatively inexpensive and convenient air travel. In 1926, a Missouri Pacific Special left its Annunciation Street depot in New Orleans at lunchtime on a Thursday with the Tulane team and its fans bound for “the most important game of the season” against Mizzou. For $30.87, or roughly $450 in 2019 dollars, passengers rode 24 hours to St. Louis, where they spent the night aboard their Pullman sleeper cars and then headed further yet on Saturday morning to Columbia, then spent all day in the stadium. After the game, the Special pulled out at 7pm and took close to 30 hours to return home by Sunday night.

More bearable in duration was the Tulane Special for the Ole Miss game in 1951, which left New Orleans late on Friday night and arrived in Oxford at 8:30 the next morning. The train returned to the city, traveling through the night after the game on Saturday for an early 7am arrival, its passengers consoled after Tulane’s 25-6 loss that year by a large supply of hot coffee (and perhaps in some critical cases, a Bromo Seltzer). Without question, those travelers who forked over $42 for the Pullman sleeper car when buying their tickets down at the D.H. Holmes travel department enjoyed more comfort than those who saved $10 by riding coach, but all passengers received three meals a day in the diner car in addition to a ticket to the game. Visitors to Oxford today can retrace the steps of fans who arrived by train because the old railroad depot, once served by Illinois Central, has been preserved by the university as an attractive special events space.

Alcohol played such a critical role on Football Specials that one could be fooled into thinking that its service on these longer routes was a straightforward matter. Not so across the Southeast, where a patchwork of liquor laws ranging from the arcane to the arbitrary pivoted upon the crucial distinction of the train having crossed state lines. In Alabama, passengers might have enjoyed the full cocktail menu except on Sundays, or before 6pm on Election Day, or between 2am and 8am, but once the train passed into freewheeling Florida, restrictions against alcohol sales melted away — save for on Sunday, but only when the train happened to be in the station. Not surprisingly, Louisiana stood as a model of liberality with the only prohibition falling on Election Day, a stipulation that restricted the putative voters in the Fitzmorris-Schiro race to beer only while the polls were open. Tennessee and Kentucky were a desert by comparison, allowing only beer and not on Sunday. But few surpassed Iowa’s vigilance against excessive joy, which limited sales to “near beer” only — and not even that on Sunday.

The food served aboard a train was perhaps even more important than the booze, particularly on the longer hauls when passengers found themselves captive. Chefs labored over tightly packed galleys of gleaming, stainless steel counters, burners and ovens, turning out three meals a day for hundreds of passengers who could order from a surprisingly broad selection of menu items. They accomplished this feat without microwaves or the modern wholesale food supply chain, one that today yields almost any dish or component imaginable in pre-made, heat-and-serve freezer bags. An Illinois Central menu from the early 1960s featured five unique table d’hôte options for dinner including fresh fried fish, roast turkey, sirloin steak, smoked ham or breaded veal cutlet. And this was far less elaborate than what travelers found on dining car menus earlier in the century. Passengers ate from custom, silverplated china that sat on white tablecloths and enjoyed a degree of style and service all but unattainable on even the most luxurious first-class airplanes today. This pleasantness came at a price, of course, with dinners costing roughly the modern equivalent of around $20.

Not every Football Special train was soaked in alcohol or featured deluxe service, though. Universities often sponsored student trips for special games. Among the passengers aboard such trains one found the team, marching band and the cheerleaders. When University of Southwestern Louisiana (today’s University of Louisiana Lafayette) headed to Mobile on the Southern Pacific to play Spring Hill College, they even stopped in New Orleans, where the band staged a small parade down Canal Street. Photos taken at the time depict the excited students making the best of their long ride in coach seats. At LSU, the vaguely Orwellian-sounding “Morale Commission” sold as many as 600 seats over the course of the summer for a big fall game, much like it did in 1959 when the Kansas City Southern carried students and faculty to a contest against Baylor being hosted in Shreveport. Coffee and donuts greeted arriving passengers who later received a box lunch on the way to the event. The $15 ticket not only included admission to the game, but also furnished a college memory most fondly recall decades later.

It is sometimes hard to believe that we are today as far removed in time from the passengers who rode the Illinois Central to see Billy Cannon as those cadets who in 1893 rode to New Orleans for the first LSU game against Tulane. Football itself has changed considerably, and it remains to be seen how the game and the way we get there will change in another 60 years. Looking back, there is a temptation to quote Arlo Guthrie or Willie Nelson and lament our “disappearing railroad blues,” but our age for better or worse is a different one, far removed from the human mechanics, social infrastructure and political reasonings of domestic rail travel. Yet there was something to be said for joining 500 compatriots on a train trip to cheer on your team, void of the traffic gridlock and drunk driving; maybe the experience would just bring us all a little closer together.