SI Vault
Bob Ottum
March 14, 1966
In Los Angeles, Union Pacific loads a 22-car train with skiers, dancers and lovers and then aims the whole shebang at Sun Valley, 1,100 miles away
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March 14, 1966

Wild Watusi Weekend On The Snowball Special

In Los Angeles, Union Pacific loads a 22-car train with skiers, dancers and lovers and then aims the whole shebang at Sun Valley, 1,100 miles away

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Back at Los Angeles headquarters, Union Pacific's Assistant Traffic Manager N.E. Luthi had explained it. "When all this began in 1958," he said, " Union Pacific owned Sun Valley, and we were interested, of course, in keeping the place full. Sun Valley was rather hard to get to—it has always been hard to get to—and we heard that in January the place was sitting half empty.

"Several of our people were in on planning the first Snowball Special. We got up the idea, went out and knocked on ski-club doors and sold it. We ran just one train the first year. By the next year the word was out, and we ran two—one in January, one in March. We have been running two a year ever since. This is the 16th Special. And if Sun Valley could hold more people we'd run more Specials."

As it was, the January train was long—a heavy train for the run. Twenty-two cars is not long for a freight, but passenger cars run to 85 feet compared to just 44 feet for most boxcars. Then there was the problem of feeding that many people. Oldtime dining cars would be too slow, so Luthi came up with the idea of installing chuckwagon buffet cars, letting the skiers pick up trays of food, then eat anywhere on the train from their laps. It worked. It was beautiful; there is now a trail of trays running from Yermo, Calif. to Shoshone, Idaho.

Luthi made up January's train with a dormitory car behind the engine (to which the hired help could escape), two coaches, a chuckwagon car, four more coaches, a bar car, then the swinging rumpus car—in the middle of the train—backed up by another bar car, four coaches, another buffet diner, four sleepers and the two baggage cars.

The lurching walk from one end of the train to the other, with the train winging along at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour, could take a social hour or more through a jungle of legs in the aisles, through knots of little parties, over empty champagne bottles clinking around on the floor, through some of history's great, dramatic love scenes being played out along the way. There was a crap-game roadblock in one of the lounge cars where the walkers had to detour, climbing up over four overstuffed easy chairs and across the bent shoulders of several people to get to the bar.

Some men with business suits and steely, sober eyes stood out starkly in the setting. They were Union Pacific executives assigned to guard the train to make certain all the cars were still hooked up after every stop. But Jack Ramsey, who was to the Snowball Special what Ward Bond was to Wagon Train, took it all in low-keyed stride.

"Don't be fooled by a rolling, 22-car party," said Ramsey. "This is not the world's biggest sanctioned wingding. If this were taking place in a private room at the Waldorf-Astoria you wouldn't notice it as much. It is the setting. Remember that this is a ski train, and skiers are a gregarious bunch.

"Most of these people, these skiers, are in the same age bracket—from their mid-20s to mid-30s. The quieter ones among them have private bedrooms toward the back. Those who want to play their way to Sun Valley have seats in the coaches."

"Taking tickets is the problem," said Luthi, who had done that, too, in his pre-executive days. "These people all have reserved seats, right? But they're never in them from the time they get on the train. I remember the last train I worked, I hunted for one guy from Los Angeles all the way to Las Vegas and didn't find him. But I knew he was on the train somewhere. He was just roaming around with the action. Finally, about two days later, I found him in his room at the Sun Valley Lodge, knocked on the door and said, 'Ticket, please.' "

Luthi was right about the seating arrangements, which had been carefully plotted out in advance on master charts. So much for master charts. By daybreak, beyond Las Vegas and Utah, the makeup of the train had changed magically overnight. Seats that had started with two boys somehow ended up with a boy and a girl. It all seemed more equitable.

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