The train they call the City of New Orleans
began operations in 1947 carrying passengers from Chicago to New Orleans daily. Although the train service remained popular through the 60's, by 1970 train travel was on the decline. That's when native Chicagoan Steve Goodman and his new bride, Nancy, rode the train down to visit her folks in New Orleans. That trip inspired Goodman to write The City of New Orleans
and an American folk/country standard was born. The song
would go on to earn Goodman a posthumous Grammy 14 years later.
Steve Goodman's 1971 recording was a critical but not a commercial success. It was Arlo Guthrie's
version from his 1972 album Hobo's Lullaby
that made the song into a hit. Folk musicians like Judy Collins
and John Denver
were quick to add the song to their repertoire. Joe Dessin
recorded a French version.
The American Country music world also fell in love with the song. It was covered by Chet Atkins
, Johnny Cash
, and Jerry Reed
(my favorite version.) 1984 Willie Nelson's 1984 album, The City of New Orleans
was named after the first track. That version won a Grammy for Steve Goodman for best country song; sadly Goodman had died a few months earlier of the leukemia he had been diagnosed with when he was 19.
As for the train itself, Amtrak took over services from Illinois Central in 1971 and they changed the name to The Panama Express. However because of the popularity of the song the name was changed back in 1981. In 1999, the City of New Orleans hit a semi-truck
loaded with steel that was blocking the tracks; there were 11 fatalities and over $14 million in damages. In 2004, there was another fatality when the train was derailed in Flora, Mississippi.
You can still ride the train today
. The 900 mile trip will cost you about $115 and take about 19 hours, barring delays.