The Rexall Train
by Aubrey Wiley
The Blue and White Streamliner Gets Its Come-uppance on the Virginian in 1936
In the early morning hours on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 1936, a most unusual eastbound train was waiting to depart Mullens, West Virginia. It was led by a streamlined, oil burning steam locomotive* from the New York Central Railroad! Orders from the dispatcher were given that the special train would make the 131 mile run from Gulf Junction (2/10 of a mile east of Mullens) to Roanoke in just shy of five hours. The circumstances leading to this unusual train being on the Virginian started many months before. - Above: NYC 2873 leads the 12 car Rexall Train westbound over the C&O near Charlottesville, Virginia in September 1936.
The United Drug Company, manufacturers of Rexall products, decided to run a special train in 1936 to show off its wares instead of hosting the customary national and state conventions for druggists. Pullman Company outfitted a twelve car blue and cream colored train with a black roof. The train of 1,088 feet consisted of an engine, a power car, four cars for exhibition, two cars for the company representatives to call home, a buffet style diner, two cars set up for lectures but which could be cleared for dancing and entertaining in the evening, a lounge car for fraternization and a private car. An orchestra which played for the evening dances also rode on board. An ad in the October 13, 1936 Roanoke World News invited the public to visit the train, calling out, "Come See the Million Dollar Train!" For the engine, the company asked New York Central for power. And NYC pulled all the stops, rebuilding and streamlining one of its famous L-2c Mohawks, number 2873, which was converted to burn oil for this train. Maybe the thinking was that oil would be cleaner. It was unveiled in early 1936. When built by Alco in 1929, this class of 4-8-2 engines had 69 inch drivers and was primarily used in freight service.
Leaving Boston on May 26. 1936 and starting its excursion of 29,000 miles for the next eight months, the Rexall Train played host to over 10,000 druggists, 20,000 Rexall representatives and about 250,000 public patrons during its tour to 200 cities in 47 states and parts of Canada. After its scheduled 7:45 am arrival in Roanoke, it moved to the Norfolk & Western were it was parked near Shenandoah Avenue for its day and night display and insoection. The following morning saw the Million Dollar Train head east on the N&W for Norfolk with stops along the way in Bedford, Lynchburg, Crewe and Petersburg. On Oct 18, it was brough west from Norfolk for twenty two miles to Suffolk where it was handed over to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad for more stops along that line. Meanwhile, life in Roanoke, Virginia returned to the routine as Kroger opened its first "self serve" grocery store of 4,000 square feet on First Street, SW.
Below: This 1936 train order was issued the night before the running of the Rexall Train on the Virginian. - Collection of Jack Feller, courtesy Tom Marshall
But on this particular October 14, 1936 morning, the train would have a pilot engine up front as it traveled over the Virginian. A typical VGN steamer would be in the lead for this special train; a 2-8-2, class MB, number 437. With her squat, 56 inch drivers, this Baldwin built freighter of 1909 would represent the working man’s steam locomotive on the point of this grand streamlined train! Sometime prior to 3:00 am, the coupler pocket in the sleek pilot of the NYC streamliner was swung open so the 437 could couple ahead. Trains on the Virginian could be only so fancy.
Above Left: A sister to the Rexall pilot engine 437, the 460 is shown taking sand at Norfolk in the late 1940's. - John Zuro Collection. Above Right: The sleek Rexall Train is shown in Canada during its eight month tour.
* Author Charles Knoll states that the NYC locomotive was equiped to burn either coal or oil, which no other source claimed. All others say it was an oil burner.
- Aubrey Wiley 2007- 2008
More Classic Trains by Dubin, 1974
Go Pullman Life and Times, by Charles M. Knoll
New York Central’s Later Power by Staufer and May, 1981
Norfolk & Western Railway Employee Magazine, November 1936, pg 417 contributed by Louis Newton, N&W Historical Society.
Roanoke World News newspaper, Roanoke, Va. issues October 13 and 14,1936 Microfilm in Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlotesville, Va.
Appreciation for assistance is extended to: Tom Marshall; Jay Delehanty; David C. Freed, MSG, US Army (Ret); Louis Newton, Steve Smith and John Zuro.
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