My mother grew up with Chessie the railroad kitten. As a child she always watched for Chessie while waiting for passing trains. She was a dark-haired girl with bangs, crammed in an older model car with three older tow-headed brothers and her parents, and she can’t remember a time when Chessie wasn’t part of her life. Chessie was the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad mascot, the captivating cat that captured the affection of a country haunted by the Great Depression.
Chessie made her first appearance in Fortune magazine in September 1933 after C&O public relations official Lionel C. Probert found her in the New York Herald Tribune. She was drawn by Viennese artist Guido Gruenwald and accompanied an article about kindness to animals, and C&O bought the rights to her likeness for $5.
At first unnamed, Chessie became the official C&O logo and was shown on rail cars, in ads, and on calendars. She was shown sleeping, snuggled under a blanket with one paw sticking out, to promote the railroad’s new air-conditioned sleeping cars with the slogan “Sleep like a kitten and wake up fresh as a daisy in air-conditioned comfort.”
The C&O was formed in 1873 from smaller Virginia railroads, running from Norfolk, Va., to Cincinnati, Columbus, Toledo, Louisville, Ky., and Chicago. The railroad eventually became known colloquially as the Chessie system, and Chessie’s peaceful slumbering countenance, unfettered by worldly cares, comforted people during the Depression, when railroads dominated freight and passenger travel.
The first Chessie calendar was made in 1934, with 40,000 printed, and the demand quickly exceeded the supply. Chessie’s twin kittens were introduced in 1935, with 100,000 calendars printed, and her old man, Peake, in 1937 in a Father’s Day ad.
Chessie and family went to war with the rest of the nation in the 1940s. The 1942 calendar showed Peake wearing an Army cap, and Chessie promoted sales of defense bonds. The 1943 calendar showed Chessie sleeping on the floor so a soldier could have her berth, and Peake is shown far from home on the 1944 calendar. Chessie ads also showed the railroad moving men and equipment to help the war effort.
More than 250,000 calendars were printed in 1947 and 425,000 in 1948. Chessie and her kittens were the subject of books by Ruth Carroll, radio shows, and fan clubs.
In 1963 the C&O acquired the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which had its roots in the James River Canal Company, which George Washington and others formed in the late 1700s, and the Western Maryland Railroad. Amtrak took over passenger service in 1971, and C&O was officially renamed the Chessie System in 1972. The railroad became part of CSX Corp. in 1980.
Chessie still graces calendars and gift items, and she has become a sought-after collector’s item. New products are sold by the C&O Historical Society and railroad memorabilia catalogs such as Schrader’s. Chessie can still be seen on trains in silhouette, two ears and a nose within the yellow circle of the CSX logo. And Chessie and her kittens, woven into an afghan, comfort my mother on cold winter nights.
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