All Aboard! An Unexpected Revelation Aboard the Acoma
Updated: Oct 13, 2022
I recently had the opportunity to take a little train ride. The train was called the "Sunset Special" and the ride went from the Santa Fe Depot to a sweet spot southeast of town where the train stopped and we watched the sunset glow in the west while the full moon rose over the Sangre de Christos to the east.
The train was part of George R.R. Martin's Sky Railway, which operates themed train rides from Santa Fe. While we took the Sunset Special, there are many other fun rides including a stargazing ride, a scenic landscape ride, and even jazz and flamenco trips.
Our train had three passenger cars, one of which I was entranced by. It was shiny and silver on the outside. Inside, it had obviously been very lovingly restored to reflect the beauty of its heyday. I asked one of our train conductors about the car, which was called the Acoma, and he told me it used to be one of the cars used on the Santa Fe Super Chief.
The Super Chief was a famed line run from the late 1930s to 1960s by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroad. Its route, from Chicago to Los Angeles, garnered it the nickname "Train of the Stars". The Acoma was the first full-sized, all stainless steel, rail car ever built and it went into service on the Super Chief in 1937.
As the original lounge car on the route it suddenly occurred to me–as I sat pondering the many people who must have travelled in it–that it is without a doubt that the well-traveled ladies I write about–and you read about here–spent quite a bit of time on it. Before plane travel was de rigueur, Georgia O'Keeffe would have taken the Super Chief to and from New Mexico each year. Undoubtedly, Maria Chabot took it to Chicago to see the first major retrospective of Georgia's work at the Art Institute of Chicago in early 1943.
I always wondered what train travel would have been like at that time so the Acoma inspired me to dig a little–and it sounds like it was actually a pretty good time! The Super Chief ran to/from Chicago to Los Angeles in just about 37 hours. Its average speed along the way was 60 mph, though it reached 100 mph along some stretches. It had sleeping cars, a dining car, and the Acoma, as its lounge car, had both a barber shop and a bar–so one could get a nice shave or perhaps play a hand of cars with a fellow traveler. If you were lucky enough, you might even spend some time in the presence of a Hollywood star. The likes of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor had all climbed aboard the Super Chief.
Both Maria and Georgia were prolific letter writers so it's no doubt they would spend much of the time writing letters to friends and loved ones. Maria likely spent much time journaling as well–for long distance train travel was nothing new to her. She criss-crossed the U.S. many times for her work with the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which hired her in 1936 to make a nationwide survey of Indian arts and crafts. For six months she travelled the country, documenting the traditions of various Native American tribes.
Her travels began locally, in a chauffeured Indian Service Ford with a government-issued Brownie camera. After ten days touring the Navajo nation in Arizona and New Mexico, she boarded the first of many trains that would take her to Montana, Utah, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Florida, and more.
“It all seems very sudden,” she wrote to her mother. “I am amazed at how much the Government trusts its traveling agents. They have given me a book of blank tickets that will take me all over the United States...I think it is going to be great fun traveling into every state in the union under the most ideal conditions–expenses paid. Also it is going to be a treat to work with all those nice Indians...the government has given me purchase vouchers which I fill in whenever I want to purchase some beautiful example of craftsmanship…”
While Maria did indeed meet with many "nice Indians" her excitement was quickly tempered by the poverty, hunger, dejection, confusion, and loss that greeted her at every destination. “I have aged 15 years in the problems that confront me,” she wrote to a friend.
To her mother she detailed the extent of her disappointment:
"...I have covered thousands of miles of the Middle-west in the last 3 weeks: Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North & South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa—on trains and buses, in official cars with government people—all of them showing me (when I couldn’t get away and see for myself) how miserable off these Indians are. You ask me “what I do”? That is a big, long story. It started out to be purely a survey, very brief, of the native arts and crafts. Last night West told me I “knew more about the Indian service than did John Collier” (Head of all Indians) (destroy this letter) -- because I, young and naive and unofficial looking, can go where the commissioner himself can’t go—that is, I can see how the schools are being run and all the correlated agencies of relief and soil conservation and IECW and the other alphabets, are functioning in these remote parts. Everywhere I go I talk with Indians...people tell me things that utterly betray their interest (or lack of it) in the job they are doing…It’s funny when I haven’t so much as been to college—all of it is like a fairy tale or a nightmare—through which I pass recording my personal opinion of everything I see which I try to see through the eyes of the Indians…"
As the sunset waned on my Sunset Special trip, I sat on one of the couches in the Acoma and thought about the joys and hardships Maria might have pondered in that very same car. Perhaps she looked out the same window and watched the moon rise with the same worries and hopes I did? Maybe someone sat in that same spot and was compelled to try and start a friendly conversation with the striking woman with knowing eyes whose name, it turned out, was Georgia.