The Dover Harbor, a 100-year-old Pullman car still in service, resides in a Howard County industrial park when not in operation. (Courtesy of Washington, D.C. Chapter NRHS — Photo by David Scavone)

There is exactly one heavyweight Pullman railroad car still operating in its original configuration on the main lines of America, and it calls Howard County home.

Now 100 years old, the Dover Harbor was constructed by the Pullman Company of Chicago in July 1923, and is owned by the Washington DC Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. Since 1990, it has resided on a leased siding in a Jessup industrial park when not in operation.

“DCNRHS purchased the car in 1979 with the explicit goal of putting it back in service to allow passengers to experience what first-class rail travel was like in its heyday of the 1930s,” said Jim Lilly, a Howard County resident, and the Dover Harbor’s chief mechanic.

Every year, between 300 and 400 passengers do just that, either on scheduled excursions or privately chartered trips. The car features porter and meal service, lounge and dinette seating for 24, a shower stall, and six two-bed sleeping berths, each with its own toilet and sink.

Everything on the car is historically accurate, down to the authentic fixtures and reproduced porters’ uniforms, china, blankets, carpets, window blinds, and bed security straps. The Dover Harbor even retains its original coal-fired kitchen stove, ice box, and copper-lined cigar humidor. Its exterior paint matches the 1930s Pullman green, and bears authentic lettering.

“We get a lot of rail buffs as passengers, along with people just looking for something different,” Lilly said.

Time capsule

Scarlett Wirt served as chef when the Dover Harbor left Washington’s Union Station on May 19 for a day trip to Roanoke, preparing brunch and supper for guests.

“I enjoy the challenge of turning out restaurant-quality meals for a large number of passengers in a very small kitchen,” Wirt said, adding that meals are also true to the era.

“Our chefs collect cookbooks, menus and recipes from all the historic cars and railroads,” she said. “Each railroad was known for certain dishes that corresponded to the produce and goods that were available on their routes. We like to look back and find menus appropriate to the time and translate them to modern tastes.”

Wirt said the Dover Harbor serves as a time capsule of the early Art Deco design period in America, which differs greatly from the previous Victorian era that was heavy on dark woodwork.

“You enter a space that has a clear-story top with Steuben glass sconces all the way around,” she said. “It’s very streamlined and clean and bright. I love to watch people walk in for the first time, their mouths just drop.”

Reconfigured luxury

A view of the Dover Harbor’s lounge, which comfortably seats 24. (Courtesy of Washington, D.C. Chapter NRHS — Photo by Dennis Dame)

The Dover Harbor first entered service with the Pennsylvania Railroad as a combination baggage, barber shop and library car named the Maple Shade. It was among nine cars reconfigured as the Dover series by Pullman in 1934, an upgraded series that featured air conditioning. 

About 30 DCNRHS volunteers serve as onboard staff and help keep the Dover Harbor mechanically sound and up to 1934 specs, which requires a lot of research and close inspection of the builders photos of a sister car built in the same year.

Lilly began volunteering in 1990, starting as an apprentice laborer before moving through the positions of apprentice porter, porter, and mechanic before becoming chief mechanic.

Scheduled public trips run from March through Thanksgiving, he said, typically visiting historic railroading sites and festivals or traveling along historic routes to popular destinations.

On May 28, the Dover Harbor made a special journey to be featured on display at Pullman Railroad Days in Chicago, where she was built.

“For our charter service we can go anywhere on the Amtrak system in the continental United States and to Montreal, coupled to the end of an Amtrak train,” Lilly said. Prices for charter service vary depending on the number of guests and distance traveled.

Revenue from excursion ticket sales and charters covers above-the-rail operations costs and some of the maintenance costs, he said, although major capital projects like running gear overhauls and last year’s air conditioning system replacement require private donations.

“We’ve received a few private grants over the years for specific projects, but we’ve never taken any public grant money,” Lilly said.

Continuing legacy

Jim Lilly displays a piece of Pullman china reproduced for the Dover Harbor. (TBM / George Berkheimer)

All told, Pullman built about 10,000 heavyweight revenue cars.

“There are still a lot out there, but you can only see them in a museum, or they’ve been heavily modified,” Lilly said. “This is the only one still running unrestricted in its original configuration.”

When they’re not working, Wirt said the crew members find themselves just as caught up as the passengers in the excitement of it all.

Often, Lilly added, passengers think it’s something crew members do for a living.

“We do it because we love it,” he said. “I saw a car like this at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg when I was 17 and could only imagine what it would have been like to travel the main lines in it. This is the actual experience.”

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  1. Really excellent article that captures the significance and magic of the Dover Harbor!

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