A Short Series on the History of Travel pt. II: The King of Trains and the Train of Kings

Intrigued about its origins, we’re continuing a short series of blog posts on the history of travel.

It is one of the greatest and most intriguing travel stories in history. Paris to Istanbul (read about our roots in Istanbul). East and West. Luxury, speed and intrigue -- oh, and murder -- was the story of the Orient Express. Would you ride?

“Kings and crooks, millionaires and refugees, big-game hunters and smugglers, prima donnas and courtesans traveled on it; tycoons and financiers clinched their deals across its sumptuous dining tables; diplomats, spies, and revolutionaries on board the train moved secretively to their moments of history.” - E. H. Cookridge, Orient Express: The Life and Times of the World's Most Famous Train

Origins and Vision

Georges Nagelmackers first envisioned his transcontinental train on a trip to America in 1865. While visiting the country, Nagelmackers became impressed with our innovative railway exprience. In particular, he expressed an interest in George Pullman's infamous "sleeper cars." 

German fold-out cross-section of an Orient Express dining car, 1896. (Photo: Arjan den Boer)

Inspired by what could be, Nagelmackers sought out to conquer over 3,000 kilometers in under 80 hours - Paris to Istanbul, then Constantinople. In 1888, his dream became reality as the East was finally fully connected to the West.

Simplon Orient Express map, c. 1932. (Photo: Arjan den Boer)

But unlike other trains, the Orient Express was designed and suited for the high-class, wealthy, and Royalty. Providing the best accomondations a luxury service could offer, a ticket back then has been estimated to cost around 1,750 euros today. And every penny on the price tag was worth it.

Nagelmackers used the firm La Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits et des Grands Express Européens to furnish the train. The name exudes fancy. Among the features, the Orient Express had "sleeping, restaurant, and salon cars that housed smoking compartments and ladies’ drawing rooms. With its Oriental rugs, velvet draperies, mahogany paneling, deep armchairs covered in soft Spanish leather, and fine cuisine, the Orient Express was unmatched in luxuriousness and comfort." 

Early and Hey Day Years 

Once the route from Paris to Instabul opened up, the high-society members of the world came aboard as the railway linked European cities, culminating in exotic Instanbul. In the early 1900s, Constantinople was home to all -- Turks, Armenians, Jews, Greeks -- and the city was booming even with the decline of the Ottoman empire. Other popular cities included Athens, Munich, Vienna, and Budapest. 

First Orient Express poster by Jules Chéret, 1888 (Photo: Arjan den Boer)

Perhaps most of all, the Orient Express has been popularized across fiction, including through passengers aboard it like James Bond in From Russia With Love. Literature written about the mysterious train includes novels such as The Great Railway BaazarMurder on the Orient Express, and Dracula (1897). The first recorded murder happened in 1935 when a woman was pushed through an open window by a man who had also stolen her silver-fox scarf. Later, he was imprisoned for life when authorities found him with it. 

In real life, the Orient Express hosted famous passengers -- presidents, tsars and spies. The list includes Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell (as a spy), Tolstoy, Trotsky, Diaghilev, Marlene Dietrich, Lawrence of Arabia and the spy Mata Hari. Others included a stumbling French President Paul Deschanel (prompting his resign) and Belgium's King Leopold II. 

An Orient Express luggage tag. (Photo: Public Domain/WikiCommons)

During World War I, the operation of the train was suspended. One of the most interesting moments in the train history came when aboard one of its cars, the Armistice was signed with the Allies by Germany to end the war in November 1918. In June 1940, during World War II, Hitler made the French sign their surrender in the same car. Suspended for World War II, the train reserviced again in 1947.

Later, during its final days and the Cold War, the train served as one of the only links between East and West. It was during this time that an American death (or murder) was investigated. The passenger, Eugene Simon Karpe, mysteriously fell off the train in Austria whilst carrying sensitive papers about a network of spies in Eastern Europe. They never uncovered the truth. 

As time wore on, the luxury of its services and class of inhabitants dwindled. Along with the efficiency, high-demand, and lower costs for air travel, these combining factors led the Orient Express to make its final voyage in 1977. While the train no longer runs, the history and stories of its allure, mystery, and opulence will live on. 

Close-up of the Orient Express Train exterior. (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images)

If you enjoyed reading about the Orient Express, you might enjoy this more detailed account of the King of Trains as your next coffee table book. #OurBrandIsTravel