Tale of Two Memos continued
the railroads struggled to
what many would regard as an unfortunate twist
of history, Lindbergh's early insistence that civilian aviation not be
subsidized by government at the expense of other forms of transportation
did not hold, and in subsequent decades major federal subsidies greatly
fostered the industry. The July 2, 1927 Railway Age magazine
put the best face on Lindbergh's disinclination to ride the railroad home
by pointing out that his opposition to government airline subsidy was
"almost as novel as his failure to accept the offer of the railroads
of a special train at a tariff rate of one dollar per railroad and nothing
said about who was to pay the dollar."
Following a farewell tour in 1928, Lindbergh flew the Spirit of St. Louis back to Washington, DC, where he donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, which placed it on permanent display in the Arts and Industries Building. After these ceremonies were over, the man who had ignored the railroads' offer of a free ride home the year before quietly took the train back to New York, retracing the route of the Lindbergh Special.
The railroads now had to face a changing world. They were acutely aware of the public's intense excitement over Lindbergh's flight and the dawning of the air transport industry. Railroads had worked through the 1920s to overcome the effects of World War I and wartime nationalization only to see passenger business suffer as the automobile gained popularity. Once unchallenged, they now realized that public relations and advertising were corporate necessities.
The future of air travel—which to that point had been largely limited to stunt flying and air-mail runs—may not have been too clear, but Pennsy leadership sensed opportunity in the emerging industry. (It also had gotten into the trucking business and was owner of the Greyhound bus line for some years.) As early as 1924, the federal government had approached Pennsy about participating in private-sector assumption of government-operated air-mail routes and had broached the subject of air passenger travel. Although the Pennsy possessed corporate stability and solid transportation capabilities, it deemed the idea not quite appropriate.
Three months after Lindbergh’s flight, however, the climate was different when banker Harold Bixby, president of the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and a key Lindbergh backer, approached the Pennsy to set up an air line between Cincinnati and St. Louis. Capital for such a venture was essential. Lindbergh and his associates had reached agreement with Henry Ford to provide the airplanes, but Ford did not want to invest in the endeavor. The major railroads had capital as well as communications and ticketing capabilities, plus the ability to provide alternative transportation in case of bad weather or mechanical failure.
Pennsy President W.W. Atterbury later wrote: “It seemed to me that the time had come for us to act. . . I assured Mr. Bixby of our interest . . . but explained that it would probably have to be on a much larger scale than what he had in mind.”
Other backers were brought together, and the plan was expanded. In spring 1928, Pennsy joined with the Wright Aeronautical Company, the Curtis Aeroplane and Motor Company, the National Aviation Corporation, and a group of bankers to form the Transcontinental Air Transport, Inc. (TAT), which came to be known as “The Lindbergh Line.” The railroad’s $500,000 investment made it a one-fifth partner.
On TAT’s board of directors were twenty- one distinguished business leaders, including PRR Vice President in Charge of Traffic Julien L. Eysmans and PRR Chief of Transportation Daniel M. Sheaffer, the author of the 1927 memo detailing the Lindbergh Special. Also on the board was Harold Bixby.
Serving, with generous remuneration, as chairman of the TAT Technical Committee, Lindbergh continued his unique relationship with the Pennsylvania Railroad. He was involved in charting routes, reviewing hiring, and providing advice and public appearances. He was also Consulting Aeronautical Engineer to the Pennsylvania Railroad. Another person on the committee was Lieutenant C. S. “Casey” Jones, by now having left his stunt flying behind to concentrate on the business aspects of air travel.
In a sixteen-page pamphlet issued in December 1928, President Atterbury observed that his first impression of the need for commercial air passenger service had been when he was serving in France as director general of transportation of the American Expeditionary Forces. Seeking to base this bold new move on Pennsy tradition, Atterbury quoted George B. Roberts, who had been president of the Pennsy from 1880 to 1897: “The moment that this Company forgets that its duty is to be at the head of the list of carrying companies of the United States and ceases to have the ambition to become the first in the world, that moment do I wish to pass from its management.”
Atterbury went on to describe the new service that TAT would offer. Travelers would leave New York City at night aboard a Pennsy Pullman car on The Airway Limited to Columbus, Ohio, avoiding the difficult air crossing of the Alleghenies. At Columbus they would board a waiting Ford trimotor and fly to Waynoka, Oklahoma, then take a second night train ride, on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe, to Clovis, New Mexico. The last daylight leg was a plane to the West Coast. The entire trip took forty-eight hours.
The first trip left Pennsylvania Station in New York City on July 7, 1929, with Lindbergh pushing a button on the West Coast, causing a signal to light in Penn Station, whereupon the conductor gave the highball. (A similar air-rail venture launched by the New York Central at that time was eclipsed by the Lindbergh connection—the price of that road’s earlier rejection of Bixby.)
Early the next morning, actress Mary Pickford christened the trimotor City of Los Angeles, and Lindbergh then piloted it on the first airborne leg east to Winslow, Arizona. Lindbergh was working with the railroads, but he was clearly an air man. (Visitors to the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum today can see a similar trimotor and below it a photograph of Lindbergh in the pilot’s seat of the City of Los Angeles, taking off that morning.)
Initially, bad weather often grounded the planes, resulting in TAT travelers having to ride most of the way by train. Pilots from other lines derisively began referring to TAT as “Take A Train.” With the crash of 1929 coming only a few months after TAT’s inauguration, its ridership sagged, and it lost $2.7 million in eighteen months.