DL&W - Table of
Public Art Initiative
DL&W Train Shed
Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad / Niagara Frontier Transit Authority
29 South Park Avenue, Buffalo, NY
Explore Buffalo docent, Kathleen Brown, delves into the history of the fictional Phoebe Snow, who was part of an advertisement campaign for the cleanliness of railroads in the early 20th century. Her travels on the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western rail line, more commonly referred to as the DL&W railroad, helped to put Buffalo on the map as a travel hub in the Northeastern U.S.
Phoebe Snow helped to put Buffalo on the map as a travel hub in the Northeastern U.S.
By Kathleen Brown
Buffalo Rising, December 14, 2020
As its western terminus city, the impact of the Erie Canal on Buffalo cannot be underestimated. But, by the late 1800s the Queen City owed much of its wealth and growth to the railroad. In 1897, twenty-seven different railroads served the Buffalo area, and Buffalo boasted more track mileage within the city limits than NYC, Chicago, or St. Louis.
View of DL&W complex from across Buffalo River. Two passenger buildings are at center - DEMOLISHED in 1979 - with train shed extending toward right -
The NFTA Depot and Repair Shop
In late 19th century America, trains were the undisputed transportation leader but the industry faced a PR problem. Even at the turn of the 20th century most Americans viewed train travel as a dirty and sometimes dangerous experience. Statistics supported the perceived danger with over 30,000 employee and 4,000 passenger deaths reports in the U.S. between 1902 and 1911, and many thousands more of injuries. While government regulations and industry innovations improved the safety of train travel, the typical passenger did not expect to reach their destination unscathed. Railroad cars were pulled by steam locomotives powered by burning wood or coal. It is nostalgic now to imagine the sight of a steam engine chugging along with smoke billowing from the stack. In reality, travelers faced noxious clouds of ash, cinders and soot and sometimes even burning embers.
Compounding these issues was the railroad’s connection to the coal industry itself. The expos閟 and accompanying photographs of soot-covered child miners, deadly cave-ins and explosions, and labor strife and exploitation were images that rail lines did not want to be associated with. Understandably, they were looking for a way to protect their investment and take the focus off the bad press.
One such rail line, the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western (D L & W) railroad, that ran the Lackawanna rail line between Hoboken, NJ and Buffalo, had a competitive edge. The D L & W fueled its engines with anthracite coal. Anthracite is a higher quality coal that is denser, harder, and burns cleaner than the bituminous coal more commonly used by D L & W competitors. The problem was how to convince the riding public that D L & W could take the “sin” out of cinders. From this challenge was born one of the first pop-culture icons of the 20th century, Phoebe Snow. Created by advertising pioneer Earnest Elmo Calkins, the campaign, based on a live model, a fictional character, and a jingle, was one of the first of its kind. The precursor was a series of streetcar placards based on “The House that Jack Built” with a nameless girl in white as the heroine.
This image of the girl heroine was developed into a young, feminine New York socialite and became the ideal spokesperson to extol the virtues of the D L & W experience. While claims that the name was chosen only after much scientific research and planning were disputed by her creator, it is undeniable that the moniker suited her well. Phoebe, from the Greek for “pure” or “bright,” plus the last name Snow, certainly reinforces the cleanliness of “The Road of Anthracite.” By coupling the name with her brilliantly white attire and persuasive messaging, this advertising icon literally changed the face of coal.
The very first advertisement of the Lackawanna campaign featured an image of Phoebe and this short poem:
Says Phoebe Snow
about to go
upon a trip to Buffalo
“My gown stays white
from morn till night
Upon the Road of Anthracite”
Advertisements were not limited only to the cleanliness of anthracite-powered trains but also praised comfort, dining and even the novelty of electric lighting:
Now Phoebe may
by night or day
enjoy her book upon the way
dispels the night
Upon the Road of Anthracite.
As the success and popularity of the campaign grew, Phoebe Snow captured the public imagination. Women wanted to dress like her, be like her. She became so popular that actress Marian E. Arnold-Murray was hired to portray Phoebe Snow in public appearances, attracting 10,000 fans to an appearance in Binghamton, NY in 1904.
The character came to represent the modern woman of her time. It did not go unnoticed that Snow was depicted as traveling alone. This demure, upper class young woman was safely traveling, hundreds of miles away from home, without a chaperone. What a trailblazer!
Like every trip, this one had to come to an end. Once the United States entered World War I, anthracite coal was diverted to the war effort. Calkins wrote Phoebe’s parting verse:
Miss Phoebe’s trip
Without a slip
Is almost o’er.
Her trunk and grip
Are right and tight
Without a slight.
“Good bye, old Road of Anthracite!”
– Earnest Elmo Calkins
After World War II, the character was briefly resurrected in an attempt to revive the struggling Lackawanna line. A streamlined passenger train, the “Phoebe Snow,” debuted in 1949 and ran until 1966. Like other passenger railroads, it couldn’t survive increasing competition from buses, cars, and airplanes.
Incredibly, in a time before mass media as we understand it, Phoebe Snow became a household name. While the character, along with popularity of rail travel, has faded into history, she and her creators left an indelible mark on modern advertising.
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