It wasnâ€™t passengers that had the top priority on the rails back in 1924. The item that traveled the fastest from coast to coast on the rails of that era was the raw silk produced in the orient and destined for the textile mills of the east.
It was also one of the highest valued commodities in the world.
The Jamestown Alert carried a headline to a smaller front page story that read â€œTen Million Dollars worth of Silk Went Thru on Two Trains,â€ in 1924.
Silk was as fragile as it was valuable. Heat, humidity and even too much vibration could damage the material. Insurance was often purchased on a per hour basis. The quicker the silk was delivered to the mill the less cost and possible damage.
This need for speed resulted in a streamlined process of getting the silk from Japan to the east coast of the United States as quickly as possible.
Ships carried the silk at the fastest possible rate across the Pacific where special crews of longshoremen would unload the materials to rail cars. According to Internet reports the process averaged less than 2 hours from the docking of the ship to the time the train headed east.
And these were not the standard mixed trains or even the expresses of the era. The cars were lined with stainless steel to prevent snagging the silk. Only the crew road the train, which would run 24 hours a day, and have priority over any other rail traffic.
Even the fast express trains of the day pulled onto the siding and let the silk train pass.
Â The trains noted by the Alert had left Seattle on January 31 at 2:40 p.m. and passed through Jamestown at 9:40 a.m. on Feb. 2. Thatâ€™s half way across the continent by rail in about 43 hours even though the Alert suggested it had been slowed by winter weather further west.
A silk train was expected to cross the continent and deliver its goods to a textile mill in New York City in about 90 hours. Thatâ€™s about 24 hours quicker than a passenger express would have made the same trip.
And what drove this high value of silk and made it queen of the rail?
In two words, shorter skirts.
As womenâ€™s fashion moved the hemline up the leg the ladies bought more hosiery. In the 1920s about 10 percent of a womanâ€™s clothing expenses were made up of silk stockings.
Silk was replaced by nylon in the years after World War II although the demand for the material fell drastically during the 1930s due to the economy.
But in the years from about 1900 to the Great Depression you could say the fastest trains in the country were delivering short skirts and zipping right through Jamestown.