For most of the depression year 1936, this 12-car streamliner journeyed throughout the U.S. and part of Canada, inviting over two million people aboard to dazzle them with the wonders of modern drugstore merchandising.
Most of the town’s population of 22,000 had never seen a streamlined train, but they knew this one was coming. Middletown was one of 117 cities selected for onboard convention meetings, sponsored by the United Drug Company for its thousands of franchised dealerships. The general public was also invited. Complimentary admission tickets had been handed out to customers at more than 60 Rexall drug stores in the southeastern New York area.
|Middletown Times Herald, August 26, 1936.|
|Enameled ID badges for conventioneers. The locomotive motif was strangely patterned after New York Central's Commodore Vanderbilt with three large driving wheels on a side, rather than the Rexall Train locomotive which had four drivers on a side.|
|Lounge car “Mi-31,” was furnished in a modern, contemporary style.|
The convention train was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that affected many people in many different ways. For Louis Liggett (1875-1946), guiding spirit of United Drug Co., the Rexall Train succeeded as a masterstroke of publicity and good will—the most effective advertising and public relations program he had launched since the Rexall One-Cent Sale twenty years earlier. United Drug had not attempted a national convention since July 1928 when the firm’s silver jubilee gathering was held in Boston. Since then, regional meetings had been organized by the various state-level Rexall Clubs. Six years of depressed business had made it progressively difficult for delegates to travel any distance for meetings, but Liggett and his advisors developed an ingenious plan—a special train that would visit Rexallites in their own districts—a “Coast-to-Coast Convention.” When the extravaganza was announced in Liggett’s January 20, 1936 “Dear Pardner” letter sent out to all Rexall franchise holders, the idea was met with tremendous enthusiasm and cooperation.
New York Central’s Mohawk
The Burlington Zephyr rolled into the Chicago World’s Fair on May 26, 1934, concluding a 13-hour “dawn to dusk” non-stop run from Denver. Americans fell in love with the stainless steel, diesel-powered, streamlined Zephyr. Seven months after its appearance at the fair, the streamliner and its historic dash had inspired an action film, “The Silver Streak,” released in December.
Popularity of the new “Streamline Moderne” styling did not go unnoticed by the rest of the industry whose existing fleets of locomotives and passenger cars suddenly looked old fashioned. Designers responded by adding sheet-metal shrouds and varying degrees of mechanical improvement to older steam equipment. At New York Central Railroad, Norman F. Zapf, who conducted wind tunnel studies at Case School of Applied Science, worked with design engineers William L. Lentz and Carl F. Kantola to create an aerodynamic jacket for a 4-6-4 Hudson locomotive, #5344. The shrouded engine was christened Commodore Vanderbilt in late 1934, qualifying as America’s first streamlined steam locomotive. Patent applications for the jacket and a unique smoke deflector were filed in September 1935.
|Streamline shrouding on New York Central’s 1934 Commodore Vanderbilt, a Class J1e Hudson locomotive, served as model for the Rexall Train’s Class L2c Mohawk.|
When Liggett approached New York Central (NYC) in January 1936 to supply a locomotive for his train, the time schedule (delivery to Boston the fourth week of March) and geographic demands (steaming across all sections and terrain of the U.S. and southern Canada) limited the choices. It was determined the best option would be a powerful “mountain” engine, a 350-ton 4-8-2 Mohawk.
|New York Central’s coal-burning Mohawk #2873 at Harrison, NY in 1934 before it was converted to oil and fitted with a streamlined jacket.|
|The Rexall Train locomotive and tender after streamlining at New York Central's|
West Albany shops, March 1936.
While NYC was working on the Mohawk, the Pullman Company in Chicago was commissioned to remodel twelve of their older heavyweight cars and paint them to match the locomotive, including a white stripe running the entire length of the train at window level. Special rubber diaphragms were developed to cover spaces between the cars, yielding a continuous, streamlined surface. Each car was named after a Rexall trademark or department. Kantleek (brand of rubber goods) was the car immediately behind the 5,000-gallon tender, remodeled to accommodate a gasoline engine and dynamo that generated electricity. Extra power was needed for the newly installed air conditioning and for the 3,000 light bulbs and 20 motors incorporated into state-of-the-art promotional displays in the four exhibit cars. Next in line was Firstaid, a 16-section sleeper that provided living quarters for railroad and Pullman employees. Ad-Vantages (title of the company’s trade journal) housed a model drugstore that featured a modern prescription counter, functioning soda fountain, and the latest in merchandising aids and self-service display fixtures.
|Open display cases in the model drug store were built against a mirrored wall that reflected displays on the opposite wall and gave effect of a full-sized store.|
|A modern, functioning soda fountain was installed at one end of the model drug store |
by the Liquid Carbonic Co. of Chicago
|Craftsmen putting finishing touches on scale model of the Research and Technology Dept. in Boston, and fabricating displays for pharmaceuticals and rubber goods.|
|Diorama showing the 22 office buildings, factories, laboratories and branch warehouses of the United Drug Co. The 5-story Boston offices and laboratories are shown at right, St. Louis factories at left.|
|Displays of Rexall medicines, vitamins and pharmaceuticals in Pullman car Bisma-Rex.|
|Display of Stork-brand nipples used by the famous Dionne Quintuplets. The exhibit was presented to United Drug Co. by Dr. Allen R. Dafoe who delivered the babies and carefully monitored their early years.|
|Toilet goods section. A specialist stood in the center island, demonstrating|
products and providing beauty hints.
|Grape juice flowing from a massive bunch of grapes in the Pure Food and Candy section provided a dramatic climax to the four cars of exhibits.|
Vital for communicating with the home office as well as staying current with railroad scheduling and convention arrangements was an onboard teletypewriter. It was connected to a telegraph line at each stop. Oliver W. Gieselmann (1904-1981) coordinated train movements with the many railroads it traversed, arranging for arrivals, departures and parking locations. He worked in United Drug’s Service & Traffic Dept. in St. Louis which normally controlled merchandise shipments via rail. Gieselmann would have been in close contact with Ben T. Maxey (1897-1987), the multi-tasking Train Director and Official Photographer who rode on the train.
On Sunday morning, March 22, the finished locomotive and tender was run down to NYC’s Rensselaer, NY yards where it coupled with the twelve Pullman cars brought from Chicago. The completed train then pulled onto NYC’s Boston & Albany Division, switched somewhere in central Massachusetts to the Boston & Maine Railroad, and headed for Boston’s North Station where it was put on exhibition for four days. An inauguration ceremony was held Thursday, March 26 during which Mrs. Edith Hancock Minard (1877-1937), a longtime employee of United Drug Company, christened the train “Rexie” by breaking a bottle of champagne on the crank pin of one of the huge driving wheels.
|Edith Minard, one of United Drug’s original employees, christens the Rexall Train on March 26, 1936 in Boston. Louis K. Liggett, president of the company, is at right.|
|This stylized map shows the approximate route covered by the Rexall Train in 1936 between March 29 (Boston) and November 20 (Atlanta). The excursion into eastern Canada took place August 12-18.|
Three days later, Missouri Pacific engineer Tyree F. Haden brought the train into Union Station at Wichita, KS. Harry Dockum, president and founder of Dockum Drug Co. (8 Rexall stores in Wichita), and member of the board of directors of United Drug, gave the welcoming address. Almost 19,000 visitors, including 3,000 Rexallites and special guests from south-central Kansas visited the train during its 3-day stay. On the last day, April 20, Liggett and four other officers left the train and returned to Boston via TWA to attend to business at headquarters. During these periodic absences, Liggett genuinely missed the excitement of the railroad tour he created. On May 7, after his Boston desk was cleared, he flew to Fort Worth, TX where he caught up with Rexie and settled back into his living quarters on Puretest.
Because of varying road conditions, engineers like T.F. Haden were brought on board whenever the train switched to a different railroad. A pilot familiar with the signals, curves, crossings, and regulations of his own road took control. Supervising each regional engineer was NYC Mohawk division road foreman, Bert Daniels (1895-1965) who traveled with the train. All inspections, maintenance, repairs and refueling were also under his supervision. Kantola wrote in 1981: “Bert took a good supply of tools and lubricants along since a constant concern was the friction bearings of the engine truck axles which required frequent maintenance. It was a record achievement for one locomotive to complete such a demanding tour without any breakdowns or significant accidents. For this, Bert Daniels deserves a great deal of credit.”
After stopping in New Orleans April 30, the Rexall Train traveled through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, reaching San Bernardino, California over a Southern Pacific right-of-way on May 15. The train arrived in Los Angeles the next day where it transferred to Pacific Electric tracks and was parked on Exposition Blvd. for a five-day, 37,000-visitor stopover, May 16-20.
|Los Angeles, CA. Speakers’ platform, May 16, front row, L to R: Judge Charles N. Carns, Arthur Hervey-SoCal Rexall Clubs, Attilla C. Bond-Owl Drug Co., Louis K. Liggett at microphone, radio announcer, Ray Kleinberger-acting mayor of LA.|
|San Francisco, CA. Visitors exiting from the rear of Pullman Cara Nome, last of the four exhibit cars.|
|Clintonville, WI. During a 3-hour visit on July 2, United Drug vp Joe Galvin, dressed in firefighter’s gear at right, was greeted by the local fire chief. John Considine and Harry Harley of United Drug stand on running board of the pumper.|
Winding through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, the train arrived back where it started, at North Station in Boston on August 22. But the tour was not finished as there were three months left on the schedule. Nevertheless, Liggett was ceremoniously recognized for what he had achieved during the past five months, and United Drug’s leader responded by assuring residents of the remaining southeastern quadrant of the nation that the train was headed their way.
Neither of New York City’s major rail stations, Grand Central Terminal or Penn Station, had track space to accommodate the train for 3 weekdays, so the convention visit for that area was moved to Newark, NJ where it was parked at Pennsylvania Railroad’s yard on South Broad St. The train remained there August 31 to September 2.
|Toledo, OH. The train parked along the waterfront of Maumee River on September 28. The famous Anthony Wayne Bridge towers overhead.|
|Canton, IL. The train parked briefly near the International Harvester factory before steaming to Peoria’s Union Station for a convention stop on October 9.|
It was a special treat for general sales manager John E. Fontaine when Rexie pulled into his hometown, Jackson, MS for a November 1-2 convention stop. A graduate of the University of Mississippi in 1918, Fontaine went to work for United Drug in 1931 as advertising manager, and in January 1936 was made a vice president. By November 12, Mississippi and Alabama were in the rear view mirror and Rexie cruised into Orlando, FL, the first of eight or more stops throughout the Florida peninsula.
The Rexall Train’s “Good-Will” tour concluded when the big Mohawk rolled to a halt at Terminal Station in Atlanta, Georgia for the final two days—November 19-20. On the last day, the attendance of 25,505 set a record for a single day. Louis Liggett hosted a dinner aboard the train for all Pullman and United Drug employees, expressing his sincere gratitude for all their dedication and hard work that made the “convention on wheels” such an outstanding success.
To enjoy a 30-minute movie composed of film clips taken during the 8-month Rexall Train tour, click here.
|Atlanta, GA. Terminal Station was final convention stop for the Rexall Train, November 19-20, 1936.|
United Drug Company’s “Million Dollar Rexall Streamlined Convention Train” traveled 29,000 miles through 47 states and part of Canada in eight months over 52 different railroads. It was calculated that cost of the excursion to United Drug Co. was $1 million. The onboard convention meetings were attended by some 10,000 Rexallite delegates (franchise owners) and 20,000 special guests. The train made 262 stops (117 were convention meetings) during which a total of 2,360,000 visitors came on board. High attendance numbers were achieved through advance correspondence with local Rexall dealers plus effective advertising in regional newspapers. An accordion style “Souvenir Folder,” published in at least three editions, was handed to each visitor as they entered the train.
The train was staffed by 21 New York Central and Pullman Company employees (road foreman, electrical engineers, porters and kitchen workers), and 19 United Drug Co. personnel (executives, exhibit car demonstrators, orchestra). Louis K. Liggett accompanied his staff on much of the tour. During the 236 days of travel (March 29 to November 20) the president was on board 149 days, or 63% of the time.
At strategic stops, laundry was sent out, and fresh food and other supplies came in. When the train arrived in Boston on August 22, the Pullman commissary had already gone through 14,000 lb of meat, 12,000 lb potatoes, 10,000 lb of other vegetables, 800 dozen eggs, 844 lb butter, 5400 lb bread, 1000 pies, 400 gallons ice cream, 450 gallons milk, 2200 lb coffee, 6700 oranges, 35,000 cigarettes, 4000 cigars and 200 tons of ice. Although fuel for the steam locomotive was converted from coal to oil, the diner still required 15 tons of coal for cooking meals. By the end of the tour in late November, the total number of meals served on the train was 93,000!
|Twenty members of the Pullman Company staff.|
Chief steward Ted Allen stands at right in dark suit.
On November 22, only two days out of Atlanta, the displays and other interior furnishings were removed from the cars by United Drug Company at St. Louis. The next day the train was sent to the Chicago area where the engine and tender were run onto New York Central tracks at Grand Crossing, and the twelve leased coaches were transferred back to the Pullman Company at Kensington. The Mohawk’s shroud was dismantled, and #2873 was returned to freight service. In 1953, at age 24, the worthy locomotive was finally retired. Liggett’s business car Puretest was sold to Northern Pacific Railway in 1941, and is currently enjoying commercial use in Seattle, WA.
|Pullman car Puretest in 2017. Louis Liggett’s home during the 1936 Rexall Train tour is now part of a restaurant complex in Seattle.|
|Whiting, NJ. Final resting place of Carl F. Kantola, designer of the Streamlined Rexall Train.|