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Celebrating 100 Years: The Journey of Southern Railway Dining Car No. 3158

A Century of Service – TVRM’s former Southern Railway Dining Car No. 3158 has long held the record of being the oldest continuously operating dining car in the country, and today that record enters triple digits, as the venerable 78 foot long, 87-ton heavyweight car celebrates its centenary, according to Southern Railway Mechanical Department files, which list a service date of February 21st, 1924. Although the 3158 is relatively unchanged from its donation to the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum by Southern Railway in June of 1969, baring a few cosmetic changes, and upgrades to its systems (32v D.C. to 220/110v A.C.; HVAC, Kitchen Appliances), it looks markedly different to how it did 100 years ago. The 3158 of 1924 was one of 13 dining cars built by The Pullman Company, for the Southern Railway between 1923 and 1925, as part of Lot 4723. As delivered the car was a typical 1920s car, featuring a wood-grained interior (with pen-lining), high-backed leather chairs with brass studs, a clerestory roof outfitted with ornate brass “Berry Bowl” Light Fixtures, “Fandeliers” (this was before air conditioning), and opening windows. From an operational end, the car featured a wood fired range, steam heat, battery electrics charged from a belt around one of the car’s 6 axles, and seating for 36 passengers: with a row of tables for 2 on one side, and 4 on the other. The 3158 was cutting edge in 1924, replacing older cars built of wood that even featured stained glass “gothic sash” toplight windows; but the 1920s and 1930s were a period of marked development in the railway industry, including the first official 100 mile per hour run; and the introduction of air conditioning in railcars. The first railcar to be air conditioned was a dining car as a matter of fact, the B&O “Colonial Diner” MARTHA WASHINGTON, unveiled in 1930. Dining Cars, followed by Pullman’s fleet of sleeping cars were prime candidates for air conditioning, both for comfort for the first class passengers within them, as well as sanitation. This was the era of the steam locomotive, and in most cases in the Eastern United States, the coal fired steam locomotive. Open windows meant coal soot, ash, cinders, and other filth, which became incredibly noticeable on white table linens and bed sheets. The 3158 was climate controlled a few years later, however cinder problems continued to persist according to Southern Railway correspondence in 1938 and 1939, due to loose windows and vents overhead in the clerestory. This along with interior updates (after fire damage) led to some minor internal changes between 1940 and 1942. Nothing major, until November of 1949 that is, when the 3158 was taken to the Southern Railway’s Hayne passenger car shop in Spartanburg, S.C.


This was the 1940s and Southern Railway was changing its image, an image that turned away from green and gold steam locomotives and Edwardian railcars, to the silver age. New diesel streamliners had been delivered, and new stainless steel coaches ordered from Pullman-Standard and the E.G. Budd Company. To fill out the fleet, Hayne began rebuilding Southern’s fleet of heavyweights into what were essentially new cars, within a 1920s Pullman shell. The 3158 emerged in February of 1950 with smooth welded sides, large sealed windows, its clerestory roof cloaked between a rounded outer “turtleback” roof, and a drop ceiling inside. Up to date mechanical equipment was added, and the old 2-person tables were replaced with 4-person tables, increasing capacity to 48 passengers, and total weight to 87 tons. The completed car was released from the shop on the 14th of February 1950; however on a shakedown run to Atlanta, on Southern Railway Train 35, problems with the cars wheels and axles evidently arose, as the car had to be set out at Buford and returned to Hayne Shops the following day, following which point all 6 wheelsets were replaced, and the car was finally released back into service on the 24th of February 1950. The rebuild car saw usage alongside the new Budd stainless cars, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, with minimal interior changes (including a capacity drop from 48 to 44, to accommodate a Steward’s Desk); until time once again caught up with the car in the late 1960s. Passenger travel was falling off, as more modern transportation modes drew traffic away from the railways, and Southern’s fleet of streamlined dining cars were now sufficient to handle traffic, leaving the “Modernized Heavyweights” surplus. The late 1960s had seen multiple donations of “steam era” railway equipment to newly founded museums. Chattanooga’s Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum was founded in 1961, but was still in its infancy with only a few pieces of equipment prior to 1965. This began to change with the acquisition of steam locomotive 4501 by TVRM President Paul Merriman in 1964, and its return to operation, on the Southern Railway no less, in 1966. This furthered a close relationship between Southern Railway and TVRM, which led to numerous equipment loans and donations between 1968 and 1982 by Southern Railway, and later by successor Norfolk Southern.


TVRM approached Southern Railway regarding donation of a dining car, with Museum President Paul Merriman initially curious about an unrebuilt car that retained its clerestory roof according to oral histories, and had not undergone the modernization. This is not positively verified, however after a meeting with Robert M Soule, Jr, a “better” car was shown to Soule, that was freshly rebuilt – 3158. According to letters from Graham Claytor, he chose to provide the 3158 instead, based upon it being freshly shopped, and ready for service, a decision which would lead to the continuous service of said car, now entering its 100th year. With this inspection by Soule, and offer by Mr Claytor (on its 45th birthday no less), the 3158 was donated to TVRM by Southern Railway on the 25th of June 1969. Upon donation the 3158 entered service at the museum, as well as on excursions with 4501. For many years dining car operation was a major fundraiser for TVRM, on excursions to places such as Crossville, that otherwise used Southern Railway equipment; although some TVRM trips, and all-TVRM equipment trips were operated.


The late 1970s into the early 1980s were a period of great change at the museum, and the 3158 was not left out. Internally the comparatively spartan 1950s interior was dressed with wooden chairs, curtains, and lamps, presumably in hopes of drawing some nostalgia for the cars original interior, as this was a time when the Southern Railway was still running the 3300 series Budd stainless dining cars (such as TVRM’s ex-Southern 3307) which had interiors that were the basis for the rebuilt 3150-30 series cars. Further mechanical work was completed around 1976, with the pouring of a new concrete kitchen floor. After this, it was back into service throughout the remainder of the 1970s. The 1980s were a period of modernization for excursion equipment, from 4501’s new welded tender tank, expansion at the museum, and the 3158. As museum policy changed, a “company scheme” was adopted, and the 3158 shed its Pullman green painted for “Colonial Red” in 1980, joined by the name “Traveler’s Fare” from L.J. Miller III, TVRM’s Vice President – Mechanical; after British Rail’s “Traveller’s Fare” Restaurant-Buffet Service of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The 1980s also saw the replacement of the 3158’s plain bearing axles and wheels with modern roller bearings for mainline use, and the 1987-88 off-season saw the fitting of a diesel generator, to allow the car to be self sufficient. The old axle driven battery system (32 volt D.C.) was replaced with a new 220v/110v A.C. diesel system, new air conditioning, and heat, as well as further cosmetic work. The car saw usage on new museum trips, such as a new service to the Chattanooga Choo Choo which was unveiled in 1987, the Downtown Arrow. These early trips included the 3158 with the 630 and 98 used on the first trial trip, and on the first revenue trip shortly thereafter.


Into the 1990s the car continued to see excursion usage, right up until the very last TVRM/NS “Tennessee Autumn” excursion, on the 29th of October 1994. The end of the NS trips was not the end of 3158’s off-museum trips, with museum dinner trains growing in popularity, and the introduction of new “Dixieland Trips” over the Chattooga & Chickamauga Railway’s former Central of Georgia ‘C’ Line and Tennessee, Alabama, & Georgia Railway. Over the past 3.5 decades, the 3158 has continued to make numerous memories on TVRM’s award winning dinner train, serving as the backbone of said train. The car has played host to fine meals, wedding proposals, and so much more. Over the years the train has grown to include Lot 4723-sibling car No. 3164, former Grand Trunk Western Parlour-Buffet Car SILVER LAKE (later GT/CN 899), Pullman Sleeping Car CLOVER COLONY, and of course former Baltimore & Ohio Office Car No. 98, long-time running mate since the 1970s.


The 3158 truly has been a staple of rail travel in the South for a century, and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is immensely proud of its centenary, and not just any centenary, but one of continuous service. From the hallowed days of steam on the Ashville, Birmingham, and Carolina Specials; to the early museum days; to Southern and Norfolk Southern excursions, 3158 has been there, and a permanent fixture in Chattanooga for over 50 years. Here is to the next century of service!

From $95

Dinner Train

March 15, 2024 - October 26, 2024 EDT

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum Dinner Train is a unique opportunity to enjoy a railroad excursion trip and fine dining en route. The train travels through the Tennessee Valley, making this a perfect outing for anyone who loves trains and good food.

Support the Legacy of Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum: Your donation today can make a world of difference in preserving the rich heritage and continued success of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM). Donate now and be a part of our journey as we steam ahead into a promising future.