The Western Saloon Reimagined


The 6:09 Goes Roaring Past the Creek … Country Comfort’s in a Train Going Back Home*

In a post of some months ago, “Down the Pub”, I wrote:

… in 1954 when Union Pacific Railroad placed new locomotives and consists (the related cars and equipment) on its Chicago-Denver run, it featured as the club-lounge “The Pub”, a sleek affair meant to resemble an English country tavern.

We wonder what beers were served there. America by 1954 had virtually abandoned its 19th-century India Pale, stock, and still ales, beers descended from U.K. tradition. Apart a superficial architectural allusion, the American-Anglo pub in 1954 offered mainly a misty romance. The core ale and porter – the things that fuelled and originally made the British pub what it was – had ceased to be sold in most American drinking places.

I went on to say I wish I could find the bar list for the space-age yet still recognizably “British” pub built for prosperous train-goers of the 1950s and early 60s. I never did, but I found something as good in its way: the drinks list for its immediate predecessor, the “Frontier Shack”.

The Frontier Shack started service in the late 1930s. Its conception and design are described in a remarkable Union Pacific pamphlet, The Frontier Shack, which is reproduced on the website Streamliner Memories, see here.

The pamphlet explained that Walt Kuhn, a storied, Brooklyn-born artist and illustrator, designed and decorated the bar. The image above is an actual photo in Kuhn records lodged with Smithsonian Institute, as reproduced on the Streamliner Memories site, see here.

The Smithsonian’s page gives further background on Kuhn’s connection to Union Pacific:

From 1936 until 1943, Kuhn was employed by the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad Company through his connection with Averell Harriman, husband of Marie Harriman and UP’s Chairman of the Board. He designed and decorated club cars and lounges for Streamliner trains, designed posters and brochures, and consulted for other projects. Kuhn’s historically-themed club cars, “The Frontier Shack” and “The Little Nugget” involved two of his favorite historical themes, the old west and early stage comedians.

The Frontier Shack pamphlet smoothly elaborates:

Among the many unique fa­cilities for your enjoyment en route on The Streamliner “City of Denver” is the “Frontier Shack.” Situated just forward of the coaches, it is an authentic reproduc­tion of a western frontier shack of the period between the close of the Civil War and the early “90’s.” It has the intriguing atmosphere of hospitality so characteristic of the historic hostelries which were land­marks of early pioneer days along the Overland Route.

The walls and ceilings are of unfinished and unmatched white pine boards, face nailed and of uneven lengths and widths…

Odd, isn’t it, that something could be memorialized, made mythic, in barely two generations? It’s as if Via Rail built a 1960s Toronto beverage room, or Montreal taverne, for the Toronto-Montreal run. I mean, it isn’t that long ago, I can tell you exactly what the taverne was like, and I’m no crusty old-timer. Really.

Fortunately, the Railroad Archive site has preserved the 1940 drinks list shown below. And lo, Pale Ale – Bass’s – and stout – Guinness’s – are still represented along with unnamed American draught and bottled beer.

A cold collation was available too, including what seems an early form of the Reuben sandwich, and caviar, with not much daylight in their prices. Such was 1940 America, just coming out of the Depression.

The food choice seems Plain Jane today yet with good ingredients was perhaps as satisfying as anything in fashion now.

Soon the supply of Bass and Guinness would dry up, after Pearl Harbor that is. Maybe the beery twain returned for The Pub, the next City of Denver lounge car. If I find a menu for that period I’ll do an update.

The 1940 document shows the great lasting power of Bass and Guinness beers in America, an almost invariable duo of aristo beer we might say. Commencing about 100 years earlier these brands flew the flag for top-grade imported, non-German beer. Their reign lasted until about the year 2000 when Bass seemed to fall from American graces, leaving Guinness the main prestige import outside German, Dutch, Mexican, and Canadian beers.

What unites, finally, The Pub to the Frontier Shack is the commercial adaptation of an earlier, yet still commercial, idea. There is no Rousseau-style innocence, here. It’s an ever-evolving process until successive change transforms the original idea (if it ever was) to something unrecognizably new.

If Union Pacific was still operating its Streamliner, The Pub could be followed by The Dive Bar followed by The Beer Garden followed by The Speakeasy followed by The Factory, or Railway Arch. It never ends, you see.

Note re images: the first image was drawn from the Streamliner Memories site as noted and linked in the text. The second was drawn from the Railroad Archives site also linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*With apologies to Elton John and Bernie Taupin, but we think they’d like this post.