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Hold the Panama!

The IC’s president took a personal interest in his road’s top train

ICPanamaCentSta
With the Chicago skyline in the background, Illinois Central’s Panama Limited pulls into Central Station to load passengers in a view from atop the terminal building.
Illinois Central
The Panama Limited was for many years the premier, first-class luxury train of the Illinois Central on its Chicago–New Orleans route. All-Pullman in consist, it left Chicago’s Central Station (a.k.a. Twelfth Street) promptly at 5:00 p.m. daily on its 921-mile dash to a 9:30 a.m. arrival in the Crescent City.

Many IC employees and patrons knew that if the
Panama was so much as a minute off in its daily departure for New Orleans, IC President Wayne A. Johnston demanded there be an explanation on his desk the following day as to the reason for the tardiness.

Mr. Johnston had great affection for the
Panama. Not only was it the flagship of his railroad, it was the symbol of all that was great and good with the high-speed luxury trains of the 1940s and ’50s. Woe betide any IC employee who delayed his beloved trains 5 and 6!

Wayne Johnston was IC president and board chairman from 1944 to 1966. He died on December 4, 1967, three days short of his scheduled retirement as board chairman, and only five weeks after the
Panama finally added coaches to its consist (albeit under the Magnolia Star name, to preserve the Panama’s cachet.

Two vignettes come to mind that illustrate the fondness and pride the IC president, his staff, and employees had for the
Panama.

A good friend of mine, Jim Neubauer, in the late 1950s gathered a group of four friends to ride the
Panama down to Effingham, Ill., to enjoy the train’s famous King’s Dinner. Return would be on No. 2, the City of New Orleans.

The King’s Dinner, at a special price, featured a meat course and a fish course, and included a cocktail, wine, coffee, dessert, and an after-dinner drink, plus a souvenir pin in the shape of a crown.

Jim checked in three of his four guests at a table in the main waiting room of Central Station, then made sure they boarded the train. At 4:58 p.m., the fourth guest was still missing — a no-show. Jim hurried down to the loading track. As he ran up to the last open vestibule, the car porter asked, “Mr. Neubauer?”

“Yes,” Jim answered as he climbed aboard. The porter turned to the conductor, standing in the vestibule, and said, “Mr. Neubauer.”

The conductor, watch in one hand, signal cord in the other, yanked twice. The porter tossed the stepbox up, climbed the steps, swung the door shut, and the
Panama began to roll at 5:00 p.m., straight up. Mr. Johnston’s pride and joy was on time as usual.

The second vignette involves my uncle, Chuck Havens, who served for many years as director of physical plant for the University of Illinois. His duties frequently took him to Chicago, 127 miles north of Champaign/Urbana, the main site of the university.

During this time the “only” way to travel north and return was via Illinois Central’s double-track speedway. His train of choice on his return from Chicago was the
Panama Limited.

During the 1950s, Wayne Johnston served on a community board that was to work with city officials in selecting a site for the UofI’s new Chicago campus. My Uncle Chuck was the key official from the main campus who worked with the committee in the site-selection process.

One afternoon, Uncle Chuck was meeting with Mr. Johnston in his office at Central Station. As the meeting progressed, Chuck kept glancing at his watch, aware that he was about to miss his train — the
Panama.

The IC president asked him the reason for his concern about the time. My uncle said he was hoping to make the
Panama in order to be home that evening with his family.

Mr. Johnston pressed a buzzer on his desk that summoned a staff member from the outer office. When the aide appeared, Mr. Johnston — to the amazement of the aide and my uncle — ordered, “Hold the
Panama!” He then turned and said, “Let’s finish our business. You’ll make your train.”

Though it left Chicago a little late, the train with my uncle aboard arrived in Champaign right on the advertised.

There is something wonderful and nostalgic about these episodes: the swift luxury train, the pride of the employees in the great transportation system over which it traveled, the personalized service, and, above all, the prerogative of the Illinois Central’s president to offer his assistance to my uncle.

Somehow, I just can’t see this happening at O’Hare airport.

I think we’ve lost something in the way of excellence — a way of life as demonstrated by “Hold the
Panama!”


First published in Spring 2009 Classic Trains magazine.

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