Mid-Winter Vacation 1916
Mid-Winter Vacation 1916 was a perfect way to warm up.
Mardi Gras in 1916
Mid-Winter Vacation 1916
There are many options when folks living in the Northern states desire an escape from the cold. In the 1910s, the Illinois Central Railroad (IC) tempted Chicagoans with not only an escape from the cold, but also an invitation to a citywide party in New Orleans. IC's "Mid-Winter Vacation" excursions promised excitement, along with not having to wear long underwear.
In 1916, the IC promoted its third Mid-Winter excursion with a 26-page brochure. Imagine living in Chicago in November of 1916. You're walking to and from the train that brought you to your downtown office from your home. The weather grows colder. You know by New Year's, it's going to be cold, windy, and snowy. As you walk along, from the station to the office, a poster calls to you from a travel office in a hotel. Families wearing spring attire gather at the rear end of trains that rescued you from the snow.
At the railroad office
On the way home, as you pass that travel office, you stop in, inquiring about the scene on that poster. A clerk cheerfully explains the Mid-Winter Vacation. They give you a copy of the excursion's brochure. You bring it home to your wife. While she didn't have to take the train into town, she's still coming and going from the house in cold, also knowing the snow and slush will make her daily routing more challenging. Three months of this? By then, you'll absolutely need a break.
Talk it over
Over dinner for the next couple of days, the weather becomes a major topic of conversation. You and your spouse think back to February's cold and damp. On February 16, 1915, New Orleans temperatures were in the mid-50s for Mardi Gras. The mid-50s?! You could almost promenade in shorts in such weather!
Mardi Gras 1916 would be on March 7th. That extra three weeks meant that New Orleans would likely be even warmer. You sigh. Your spouse sighs. You start thinking, maybe this escape is necessary.
Why New Orleans?
Just why was the IC tempting you with a trip to New Orleans? The semi-tropical climate of New Orleans was the end point of several IC passenger routes, most notably, the Panama Limited. New Orleans was also the origin point for freight trains, hauling cotton and other raw goods north, to the factories of Chicagoland. Finished products returned South, filling the shelves of dry goods and other stores. One more train, maybe two if enough people booked, heading down to New Orleans, enticed folks to use passenger rail service at a time of year most people worried more about slipping on ice on the sidewalk.
As you glance out at the sidewalk in front of your Chicago home, you're visualizing the ice and snow. New Orleans, with its "...renowned restaurants and its noted hotels" sounds better by the moment. The Carnival season is "Gorgeous, Spectacular, Entertaining, and Instructive." (You've heard friends and colleagues discuss the "instructive" part, to be sure.
And, compared to Chicago, it would be warm, on March 7th.
While most of the excitement and pageantry of Mardi Gras happened in the evenings, New Orleans has much to offer. You'll visit the old French and Spanish Quarter, bringing you back to a "Past Foreign Epoch," a colonial time you didn't read much about in school. The textbooks focused on the Thirteen Colonies. New Orleans was part of New Spain in 1776. The city evolved along a totally different path. It retained much of that magic, 140ish years later.
This sounds better and better as your daydreams carry you through work over the next week or so.
Consider the details
Uncertainties of Travel
Most of us are not frequent travelers. Even when we reach the status of "regular traveler," it's to specific destinations. The Chicagoan who travels to, say, Cincinnati to see family, or the New Orleanians who make the five-hour trek to Houston or the 8-hour run to Atlanta. Many of us have that one place we go to for work a couple of times a year. In the South, we see families dash down I-95 or across I-10 for regular adventures at Walt Disney World.
Regular travel is "safe." Disney Vacation Club family knows exactly where they're staying. Atlanta Falcons fans coming down to New Orleans for the annual NFL South derby stay with Saints-fan family willing to tolerate their presence. Regular routes that, for the planner in the group, put them on auto-pilot.
Looking out at that Mid-Winter poster in 1915 is something else altogether. The Chicagoan likely had never been to New Orleans. Yes, there were great restaurants and solid hotels. New Orleans was and is a port city, though, which conjures up, well, uncertainties. Who better to assist with alleviating those uncertainties than a transportation company that operates in the city daily?
So, what are the uncertainties that concern the less-than-frequent traveler?
Hotel at destination
A quality passenger train is, essentially, an overnight hotel. The trip from Chicago to New Orleans was, at the time, twenty to twenty-three hours, essentially an overnight trip. Once the train arrived at Union Station (more on the station later), passengers disembarked and went on their way. The railroad pulled the train into a service yard, where the cars were cleaned, refreshed, linens changed in the sleeper cars, and dining cars re-supplied. Trains then returned to the station to head north with a new set of passengers. It's not all that difficult to refresh and re-supply a train that doesn't move for a few days. So, that takes care of where to stay.
Food - Two concerns here. Dining on a budget can be tricky. There are good places, there are places one could get food poisoning. Fine dining on a nightly basis isn't cheap. While the dining car on a train offers a good supper and a good breakfast the next morning, that's the expectation from most travelers. Most of the diner car staff on Pullman-staffed trains were solid cooks, supervised by chefs who could run their own back-of-house. It wasn't Restaurant Antoine, which had been open seventy-six years by Carnival, 1916, but it worked.
Transportation at the destination
A regular urban commuter also has specific routes and routines. They take the train or subway to town and walk from there. Same for cities where buses are common. While buses and streetcars in a new location are fun, they can be confusing. That creates uncertainty. Taxis recommended by the railroad, along with local IC staff who can put you on the right streetcar, remove the concerns.
OK, the uncertainties have been addressed. Now, let's talk money.
Can we afford it?
Schedule and fees
You took home the brochure, and your spouse confirmed the schedule. Yes, you can get someone to watch the kids for a few days. Yes, a March 4th departure and a March 8th return (arriving back to Chicago on the 10th) works. Now, let's talk money.
The base fare for this journey is $64 per person. There are some additional fees, if you plan to stay on the train while it's parked in New Orleans. Two people sharing a compartment or drawing-room at the destination adds $12.50 to the total. (Note that booking a private drawing-room rather than just a basic sleeping compartment will cost a bit more.) The IC advises that, "Experience has taught that the ideal accommodations to be a compartment or a drawing-room."
Meals en route and return are included, but a la carte dining while in New Orleans is additional. So, if you head out into the city for a local meal, you're not losing out on meals on the train.
This plan puts expenses per person at $76.50 per person. Adjusted for inflation, this comes out to $1835.87 per person in 2021 dollars. It's pricey, but you can make it work.
Let's go back to the railroad agent!
Dining to and in New Orleans
Dining out in New Orleans may not have been the primary motivation for joining the Mid-Winter Vacation, but it certainly was an important one for many. Without cable TV and other video services, what the cold-weary Chicagoan knew about New Orleans cuisine came from their boss, maybe someone in their church parish, or their better-traveled cousin. Friends and family demonstrate their culinary knowledge by commenting that this appetizer or that soup you're enjoying locally just can't measure up to the ones they enjoyed on their trip to New Orleans. This builds the mystique that pushes you to buy the excursion package.
So, you did it. You went to the railroad office, or a travel bureau along your walk to the office. They explained all the details and fine print to you. After all, the IC rely on testimonials from previous excursion-goers. They don't want the 1916 equivalent of a one-star Yelp review! You write the check, and bring all the paperwork home. Now for planning the fun!
Your boss, friend, and/or cousin may know a bit more about New Orleans than you, but their experiences are limited when compared to the railroad. While the staff in the local IC office may not know your destination well, the brochures run down the fine dining options. You can read about those places and lean on advice from the New Orleans staff upon arrival.
Your excursion brochure lists a number of restaurants:
de la Louisiane
Kolbs German Tavern
Begue's Breakfast House
The Cave and Forest Grill at the Grunewald Hotel
The Italian Gardens at the St. Charles Hotel
Of these restaurants, la Louisiane, Antoine's, and Galatoire's remain open. Kolb's German Tavern opened in 1899 and closed in 1994. Kolbs was in the 100 block of St. Charles Avenue. It offered a close-by alternative to the restaurant in the St. Charles Hotel, located in the 200 block.
There's a note on dining in the brochure:
The party will undoubtedly be scattered throughout the day, and would prefer, not only to be free to eat when and where it might be most convenient, but to have the opportunity to experience the delights of dining in some of the famous New Orleans restaurants; for it is not only proverbial that in New Orleans they know 'how to dine,' but that the city is noted for its restaurants and cafes, many of them making specialties of certain dishes that cannot be duplicated in any other restaurant in the country.
This requires a bit of unpacking. One of the takeaways visitors to New Orleans bring home often involves their dining experiences. The names of restaurants such as "la Lou," Antoine's and Galatoire's suggest they serve French cuisine. This is only partly correct. The French restaurants of New Orleans serve dishes with names that match Continental cuisine, but the recipes are quite different. We classify these restaurants as "Creole-French." That's because the Continental dishes which came over from France (often via Haiti) originally evolved over three hundred years. French families in New Orleans often used enslaved Africans as cooks in their households.
Restaurants employed free people of color in their kitchens. The black cooks in New Orleans contributed to the evolution in cuisine. They added seasonings that reflected their African roots and ancestry. They cooked food more suitable for the warm climate. At home, the family ate what cook prepared. In most cases, it turned out pretty good.
Extending this cooking style to restaurants made perfect sense. Local diners wanted food seasoned like they got at home. So, the French dishes one would expect in Chicago or New York were simply not the same in New Orleans. Restaurants in the rest of the country couldn't duplicate these styles, because they didn't have back of the house staff that descended from enslaved Africans and Afro-Caribbeans.
Your friend, brother-in-law, or boss constantly reminds everyone of this. Now you have to see for yourself. This is why the railroad doesn't include meals in your Mid-Winter Vacation package.
It's not just the Creole-French cuisine that receives a distinct New Orleans touch. The city boasted of a large German community, long before the Southern Rebellion. Given the turmoil in Europe after Bonaparte merged the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire into his Confederation of the Rhine, then the fallout from its collapse, many of German descent looked to America as a way out of chaos. Like the Irish, they came to Eastern cities. As opportunities in New York and Baltimore dwindled, these Germans stretched out, to Ohio and Chicago. They also boarded ships in the Eastern seaports and came to New Orleans. By the early 1900s, there were a number of German restaurants. Like the Creole-French restaurants, the German food of New Orleans picked up a bit of local flavor.
Creole-French cuisine in New Orleans, for all its romantic and foreign appeal, didn't fit the plans of many from Chicago. Perhaps travelers were classic, Anglo-Irish meat-and-potatoes people. All that fancy food just didn't work for them. Additionally, the cost of dining out stretched some travel budgets too far.
The railroad stood ready to help. The IC operated the train's dining and club cars while in New Orleans. Prior travelers on these excursions particularly found the dining car convenient for breakfast. One could get ready, walk down to the dining car, have a proper meal, then get on with the day in New Orleans. Returning to the train yard for dinner was not too terribly inconvenient, particularly when one knew exactly what to expect from the kitchen.
Enjoying Mardi Gras 1916
Explaining Mardi Gras
It's interesting that the brochure for the Mid-Winter Vacation did not actually explain what Mardi Gras is until its last pages. Such was the lure of the huge warm-up travelers experienced as they moved south. The promise of fine dining and enjoying arguably the most unique city in America were often enough to sign people up.
So, what's this Mardi Gras thing?
The brochure explained that the Carnival season begins on January 6th, with the tableaux and ball of the Twelfth Night Revelers. This krewe derives their name from the "Twelfth day of Christmas," also known as "Little Christmas," or the Feast of the Epiphany. In 1916, thirteen Carnival organizations presented tableaux balls from January 6th to March 1st.
The dates of these balls vary from year to year. The start of Carnival on January 6th is fixed, but Mardi Gras varies, depending on Easter. Easter is calculated as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. The Church observes the season of Lent, a period of fasting and penance, for forty days before Easter. If you calculate forty days before Easter (excluding Sundays), you get Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. So, the Carnival season ends on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday.
Since Easter Sunday, and consequently, Mardi Gras, does not have a fixed date, the length of the Carnival season varies. Carnival 1916 was longer than usual. The organizations holding balls could spread out a bit, not having to go night after night. Since most of the organizations were private social clubs, there wasn't a lot of overlap in membership rolls.
To schedule the climax of the Carnival season, one calculated backwards from Mardi Gras. Carnival on March 7, 1916 meant the day before, Lundi Gras, was on March 6th. There were no parades or balls on the Saturday and Sunday prior to Mardi Gras. The first parade of the season was on Thursday, March 2nd, the Knights of Momus. There was also no parades or balls on Friday, March 3rd.
These empty dates filled in with activity as time went on. The Krewe of Hermes took to the streets for the first time in 1938, on the Friday before Mardi Gras. The Krewe of Endymion rolled its first parade in 1968, and the Krewe of Bacchus, in 1969. They rolled on Saturday and Sunday evenings. Various krewes held daytime parades over the weekend as well.
So, back to 1916. The Knights of Momus rolled on the evening of Thursday, March 2nd. The Mid-Winter Vacation excursion departed Chicago on Saturday, March 4th, arriving the next day. The lack of formal Carnival activity on the evening of Sunday, March 5th gave the visitors a chance to explore the city a bit on their own and enjoy New Orleans cuisine. Monday during the day provided time for tours and other activities.
The vacation package price included grandstand tickets for three parades. With an arrival on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, that meant visitors viewed the Krewe of Proteus on Monday evening, Rex during the day on Mardi Gras, and the Mystick Krewe of Comus on Mardi Gras night.
Monday offered day time pageantry as well, as Rex, King of Carnival, arrived along the New Orleans riverfront on Lundi Gras afternoon. The excursion brochure describes the ceremonies of 1915, in anticipation of the coming trip's experiences will also be magnificent. The King of Carnival officially arrives in New Orleans aboard a riverboat, escorted by a number of warships of the United States Navy. In 1915, the largest warship in New Orleans for the celebration was a battleship, the USS Ohio.
Rex stepped off the riverboat to the fanfares of military bands. Military dignitaries saluted the monarch (who usually wore a mask, keeping his identity secret until the next day). The Mayor presented Rex with the keys to the city. Rex then boarded an elaborate carriage, leading a military parade. Sailors and Marines from the ships in port, as well as local Army and militia units, marched through the downtown streets. Military pomp and circumstance was much more formal than the cheers and applause of the masked revelers rolling through the city in the evening tableaux parades. After the military recognition, Rex faded into the shadows until the next day.
The streets cleared again, only to fill up after sunset, for the Krewe of Proteus. Proteus was the second street parade of the season, and drew large crowds, as the two-day celebration was well under way. Proteus, like most of the "old line" krewes, was punctual. Their parade began at 6:00pm, arriving at the French Opera House in time to begin their bal masque at 9:00pm. Those invited to the ball partied into the wee hours of the morning.
Tuesday morning dawned. The King of Carnival and members of his krewe rose early, to prepare for the day parade. The Rex parade stepped off at 10:00am, in Uptown New Orleans. The King of Carnival made it to City Hall (now Gallier Hall) on St. Charles Avenue, just before noon. Rex toasted the Mayor and other city officials, then rolled down to Canal Street. The king's float pulled up to the Boston Club, in the 800 block of Canal Street, where Rex toasted his queen, her court, and his family. The parade meandered up Canal Street, turned towards the river, to the French Opera House, where it disbanded.
Mardi Gras afternoon was an exciting combination of music, dancing, eating, drinking, and, for some, perhaps a bit of romance! The street party, as well as private functions across the city, mellowed out a bit as sunset approached.
At 6:00pm, the oldest Carnival organization, the Mystick Krewe of Comus, left its float den Uptown, rolling through the streets. Comus (not a king, but a demi-god) also stopped at City Hall to recognize city government. They paraded to the Boston Club, where Comus toasted his queen and members of the organization. The krewe then retired to the French Opera House, where they presented their tableaux ball.
Rex and Comus both held their tableaux balls at the same time. Starting in 1882, at 11pm, the King of Carnival would bid farewell to those attending his ball, and walked over to the Comus ball. The senior monarch, Comus, greeted Rex and his Queen. They continued their festivities until the formal close of the Carnival season at midnight.
Travelers on the excursion enjoyed all of the excitement of Mardi Gras on Fat Tuesday. Some likely retired back to their sleeping cars after public celebrations ended at midnight. Those with invitations to private parties remained out until the early hours of Ash Wednesday.
Everyone enjoyed a leisurely day on Ash Wednesday, as New Orleans returned to normal. The excursion left New Orleans Union Station at 10pm on March 8th, arriving in Vicksburg, Mississippi at 7am the next morning.
The stop at Vicksburg National Battlefield was interesting to those from Chicago and other Northern cities. Many units from the Chicago era during the Southern Rebellion were assigned to U.S. Grant’s western divisions. Many of the ancestors of members of the Mid-Winter Vacation gave their lives during the Siege of Vicksburg, 18-May to 4-July, 1863.
Leaving the South
After a couple of hours exploring the battlefield at Vicksburg, the train continued north, arriving in Chicago at 11am on Friday, March 10th.
The Friday morning arrival meant travelers had the rest of the day to return home and decompress from their adventure. By the following Monday morning, they were ready to regale colleagues and family with all the tales of that almost-foreign city to the South.