The Western Saloon Reimagined



In a post some months ago, I wrote:

In 1954 Union Pacific Railroad placed new locomotives and consists (the related cars and equipment) on its Chicago-Denver run. Featured as the club-lounge was “The Pub, a sleek affair meant to suggest a country English tavern. This went against the prevailing ethic of shiny cocktail bar and high circular chairs.

What beers did it serve? America (and Canada) had virtually abandoned the “heavy” 19th-century India Pale, stock, and still ales, descended from U.K. tradition. The core ale and porter – the very things that fuelled the British pub and gave it much of its character – had ended as items of commerce in America.

I didn’t find a drinks list from that train, but found something as good in its way: the 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, reproduced on the website Streamliner Memories, see here.

The pamphlet explained that Walt Kuhn, a Brooklyn-born artist and illustrator, designed and decorated the bar. The image above is an actual photo in Kuhn records at Smithsonian Institute, as reproduced on 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…

It’s noteworthy that something so recent 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’s not that long ago, I can tell you what the taverne was like, and I’m no crusty old-timer. Really.

Fortunately, the Railroad Archive site has preserved the 1940 drinks list. Bass ale and Guinness stout are still represented along with unnamed American draught and bottled beer.

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

The foods seem plain Jane today yet with good ingredients, perhaps was as satisfying as anything in fashion now.

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

The 1940 document shows the lasting power of Bass and Guinness in America, an aristo duo we might say. Commencing about 100 years earlier, these brands flew the flag for top-grade imported, non-German beer. The dual reign lasted until about 2000 when Bass seemed to fall from American graces.

Guinness continued as a prestige import, alongside certain German, Dutch, Mexican, and Canadian brands.

What unites The Pub to the Frontier Shack, in my view, is the evolution of an older but still commercial form. There is no loss of Rousseau-style innocence, no “gentrification” as I see it. It’s a continual evolution until finally we end with something clearly separated from the past – something new.

In these two examples, the past is still recognizable, but changed.

One sees the process in music, literature, visual arts, urban design, and countless cultural forms.

Note re images: the image above is from the Streamliner Memories website as noted and linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.