The History and a Song: Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans”

Many years ago, a railway was defined as a “track for steam carriages.” This is an extremely inadequate definition with our modern standards. The modern rail system has advanced from the primitive yet intricate stone rails that the Greeks (in the Age of Pericles) used to transport heavy construction materials over long distances. Transportation has even advanced from those early American steam locomotive which chugged their way across much of our nation. It was not until the 17th and 18th-centuries that the billows of train smoke appeared because transportation was still made up mostly of stagecoaches or by waterway. In 1658, for example, the roads in England were so bad that it took two weeks to travel from London to Edinburgh. That same London to Edinburgh route can be traveled today by car in a little over 7 hours. This quickening of travel can be thanked, in part, by the railway system; which has assisted in the transportation of goods and services but in helping expand the reach of another type of precious cargo – passengers.

There have been many famous railway routes that can be thanked for helping build America. The Chicago to Seattle railroad route in the early 1900s was called The Empire Builder. It was owned by a man that, though described as piratical in appearance, had by 1901 taken control of three of the most far stretching railway lines in the United States. His Oriental Limited train that ran from Chicago and the Twin Cities to Seattle, where the Oriental Limited reached Seattle and met his steamships that helped link the United States with a direct trade route to Japan and China. The line is still called the Empire Builder despite being used as a ‘super liner’ nowadays. It is outfitted to be one of the finest transcontinental rides in the States. We could talk all day about important railways, but we must mention the Illinois Central Railroad.

The Illinois Central Railroad, aka the Main Line of Mid-America, was a railroad that ran through the central United States and its primary routes connected Chicago, Illinois, with New Orleans, Louisiana, and Mobile, Alabama. The Illinois Central was one of the earliest Class I railroads in the US (a classification that refers to ‘having annual carrier operating revenues of $250 million or more in 1991 dollars’ (which by 2012’s inflation rate would be $452 million). Upon the completion of the Illinois Central in 1856, it was the longest railroad in the world. Though labor strikes rocked them in 1911 (marked with violence and sabotage in many parts of the US), the Illinois Central’s passenger train service has great cultural importance. The Illinois Central passenger trains were one of the methods of transport during the African American Great Migration of the 1920s! The Great Migration (sometimes called the Great Northward Migration or simply the Black Migration) was a movement of about 6 million African Americans out of the rural areas of the Southern United States which took place between 1916 and 1970 (separated by sociologists into two migrations. [The First Great Migration from 1916 – 1940 which saw about 1.6 million people move from the south to northern cities and then the Second Great Migration from 1940 – 1970 which began after the Great Depression and brought at least 5 million people North]). This expansion happened on Illinois Central‘s most famous train – the Panama Limited. Panama Limited was an all-Pullman car that ran between Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans. In 1967 the Panama Limited was combined with the coach-only train called the Magnolia Star which received even more changes after Amtrak took over operations of the service completely in 1971.

1971 not only brought Amtrak dropping the names in favor of the City of New Orleans, but that famous railway became the topic of a country folk song of the same name. Country folk songwriter Steve Goodman wrote a song describing the train ride from Chicago to New Orleans on the City of New Orleans. Goodman got the idea for the song, titled “City of New Orleans” while he was traveling to visit his wife’s family. Though the song was written and recorded for Goodman’s self-titled 1971 album, the song became after Goodman asked Arlo Guthrie to listen to the song. Guthrie agreed to listen as long as the beer that Goodman had to buy Guthrie lasted. As he drank the beer, Goodman played “City of New Orleans” and Guthrie loved it. He loved it so much that he asked if he could record the song. He recorded it and the song was a hit for Guthrie. It reached #18 on the Top 100 Chart and #4 on Billboard’s Easy Listening chart.

The song was Guthrie’s only Top-4o hit, but it was Goodman who won a posthumous Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1985 for Willie Nelson’s version of the song. Willie’s version reached #1 on Billboard’s Country chart, #1 on Canada’s chart, and #30 on the Adult Contemporary chart. It was Guthrie’s version that has graced my favorite’s playlist since I was making mix-tapes on my old radio as a kid; but finding out the stories and lineage to such an emotional song makes me love it even more. The personal connection is worth the research.


Garratt, Colin and Max Wade-Matthews. The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Steam and Rail. 1998


CPR Steam Engine No 374, in the Display Pavilion at Yaletown roundhouse, Vancouver, BC, Canada, 2011 by Nils Öberg – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Empire Builder at Minot, ND by Loco Steve, CC BY 3.0,

Illinois Central EMD E7 train leads the City of New Orleans at Kankakee, Illinois in August 1964 by Lawrence and David Barera – Flickr: Kankakee IC Aug 1964 3-3, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Arlo Guthrie’s “The City of New Orleans” attributed to Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use,

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