The Other ‘Cannon Ball’ Has Left Its Berth


First there’s the Cannonball, packing up passengers at the end of the work week to whisk them from New York City to the Hamptons.And then there’s the Cannon Ball—a private rail car that transports riders back through time to a golden age of luxury travel by rail.

“My Cannon Ball” is what Valerie Stillman of Westhampton Beach and Texas calls her private car, which a switch engine can attach to a passenger train to make a commodious run from, say, New York City to Boston, along the Mayflower route.

“Their Cannonball” is what Ms. Stillman calls the weekend conveyances that carry passengers of the Long Island Rail Road. Today’s LIRR trains are incompatible with her car, but the railroad and the rail enthusiast were able to hook up for a one-time run to Greenport in 1994, when the LIRR was celebrating its 160th anniversary.

Built in 1922, Ms. Stillman’s Cannon Ball has leather chairs, a custom-made bar and a wood-burning stove in an observation lounge with great views “to watch the beautiful scenery go by,” as she put it, while plying rails around the country outside her home ports in New York, Texas and Florida.

Like most private rail car owners, she travels in the Cannon Ball herself and also charters it for the excursions of others. Among her clients have been Whoopi Goldberg, who hates to fly, and the late Aaron Spelling. According to Ms. Stillman, the Cannon Ball was meant to carry President Obama for one of his inaugurations, until a last-minute scheduling glitch halted the plan.

The Cannon Ball has staterooms and berths that sleep eight, a kitchen, and seating for formal dining—whether they are serving caviar and Champagne or chili and Cokes—private quarters for a crew and even a chef, as well as an open-air platform like the ones candidates wave from on whistle-stop tours.

The exterior is painted shiny blue. One flag or more flies proudly from its platform at the very end of the train, whose regular passengers may be unaware of the extraordinary accommodations only a car length or so behind them.

Originally used by railroad executives and other titans of industry, Ms. Stillman’s car was purchased by her late father, Dr. James Stillman, in 1974 after he read an ad for it in The Wall Street Journal. The Stillmans had moved from Westchester to Texas, traveling by passenger rail to their home in Westhampton Beach in summer and taking the LIRR’s Cannonball for the last leg of that trip.

When Amtrak banned pets, which prevented the Stillmans from traveling to New York from Texas with the family dogs, buying a rail car was the obvious solution.

“My father was of the era when private cars were the norm,” explained Ms. Stillman, who vividly recalls riding the 20th Century Limited and other luxury trains as a girl—racing with her brother for a special sofa in the observation room, having a maitre d’ present her with a corsage before being seated for dinner, and taking part in a display at Washington’s Union Station to celebrate the preservation of Grand Central Station.

“It was just like Dagny Taggart in ‘Atlas Shrugged,’” Ms. Stillman she said of the latter. “I got to dance on the platforms” in a floor-length dress among ceiling-high flowers, chocolate trains and a red carpet leading to her family’s private carriage.

Business Car 104, as the car was called when her father took it over, had been built by the American Car and Foundry Company for the Wabash Railroad. Not only was Dr. Stillman a fan of the Long Island Cannonball, but a fictional train called “The Wabash Cannonball” was honored in a popular folk song.

“My father sat us down and said, ‘What should we name the car?’” as in, “What should we name the baby?” Ms. Stillman said during an interview last month at her cottage in Westhampton Beach.

The answer was everywhere: “Cannon Ball” was printed on canvas bags, holiday cards, a floor plan and a glass of iced tea, as well as in newspaper clips, photographs and back issues of Private Varnish, the publication of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners, whose 1988 front page features a photo of Ms. Stillman aboard her PV, as private rail cars are called.

The term “private varnish” derives from the heavy coats of varnish applied to the ornate wooden interiors of the privately owned cars of railroad officials. One source of pride in the Cannon Ball, by contrast, is marquetry walls made of wood-grained steel, which are said to be an element found very infrequently today.

Like private car ownership, the lingo of private rail cars is a world unto its own: of “land yachts” crossing “iron oceans,” of “shore power” and “movements” pulled by “revenue trains.”

Amtrak not only will pull a private car to many destinations, from Albuquerque to Milwaukee to Vancouver to Fort Worth, but it also provides such services as standby electric power, water, septic waste disposal, parking and switching—for a fee, of course.

Borden Black, the executive director of the American Association of Private Railroad Car Owners (AAPRCO), explained how a private car might tail Amtrak trains across the country: “From Jacksonville, I can go to Washington, D.C., switch to another train to Chicago and go to the West Coast based on the Amtrak schedule.”

Herself the proud owner of the Dearing—a refurbished 1925 office car purchased on eBay from the State of North Carolina, which had it languishing on the side of the tracks—Ms. Black said people who’ve experienced a trip by private car will pretty much always come back.

“You get hooked,” she said.

The association has about 75 “Amtrak-certified car owners,” meaning that they meet the specifications to hook up at the end of Amtrak’s passenger trains. AAPRCO also has about 22 members whose cars haven’t yet met those standards and hundreds of “associate members” who are simply interested in renting or reading about private cars.

The cost of chartering a room or a car can vary wildly depending on the occasion, the point of departure, the length and duration of the trip, the number of people and the degree of ritz—from a few hundred dollars for, say, a shopping excursion to New York City to several thousand dollars for what is essentially a very fancy land cruise.

People charter private cars for birthdays, anniversaries, business trips and to see the Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby or the cherry blooms in Washington, D.C., Ms. Black said. And if you don’t want to abide by Amtrak’s schedule and movements, you can always run a private train of your own.

That’s what AAPRCO does for its annual conventions, leasing engines from Amtrak, stringing private cars together and heading to parts of the country that even the passenger rail passes by.

A trip this September will meander through the State of Washington as well as through Oregon and California. Next year’s excursion, on the other coast, will incorporate Portland, Maine.

“It’s a really beautiful trip every year and opens up a lot of the country that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” Ms. Black said.

Ms. Stillman, for her part, could no longer be reached this week. The Cannon Ball had left its summer berth in Sunnyside, Queens, and had reportedly stopped to rest in Washington, D.C., as of Tuesday.

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