by Kim Davenport
In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad announced Commencement Bay as the western terminus of their transcontinental railroad line, frustrating expectant boosters in Seattle, and forever impacting the growth and development of Tacoma. 2023 marks the sesquicentennial of that momentous event, and Tacoma Historical Society will be celebrating that history throughout the year with our museum exhibit, Dreams & Dispossessions: The Railway Comes to Tacoma, and related events in our museum, online, and around the community. Bookmark NP150.org to stay in the loop with all we have planned!
In a planning meeting with our curator and registrar in the weeks leading up to the exhibit opening, the question arose as to whether there had ever been any sheet music specifically published by or associated with the Northern Pacific Railroad. I didn’t know the answer that day, but it would have been surprising if the answer were no – after all, in the late 1800s and early decades of the 1900s, sheet music was a ubiquitous form of advertising, political discourse, and civic pride.
And so I began my research. Expecting to find sheet music adorned with illustrations of a train passing through beautiful vistas, and lyrics rhyming about railway voyages across the continent, I instead found a song about a big potato…
The story begins with Hazen Titus, who in 1908 was named superintendent of dining cars for the railroad. Soon after starting in his new role, Titus was on board the North Coast Limited when he overhead two Washington farmers complaining that they couldn’t find a market for their potatoes, because they were so large, customers thought they were too big to serve. Titus soon ordered as many as the farmers could provide.
Titus tried several other items in the dining cars, including Big Baked Apples and individually-sized lemon pies, but the potatoes were what the customers went crazy for, and before long, the “Great Big Baked Potato” became a staple of not just the dining car menus, but also Northern Pacific’s advertising more broadly. Images of the huge spud appeared on postcards, letterhead, and even in 3D form, when NP mounted a 40-foot-long, three-dimensional Great Big Baked Potato on the roof of its commissary in Seattle. Electric lights caused the butter to glow and the potatoes eyes to wink.
But back to the song, which you can peruse in its entirety here. Musically it is nothing special – as mentioned earlier, sheet music was a common form of advertising in this era, and new songs were churned out quickly by songwriters relying on quick formulas of melody, harmony, and rhyme patterns. But the lyrics can be entertaining:
In going from Seattle I took the North Coast train
Because my time was limited I wished some time to gain
I crossed the great Columbia where roses were in bud
Then wandered into dinner and there met Doctor Spud.
Twas laying on a platter sure something just immense,
Served with a spoon and butter and it only cost ten cents
It was split right up the center, filled with butter and whats better,
It was sweet and hot and mealy. Was it good? Well I should stutter.
I looked at it and smelled of it, ’twas sweet as any rose,
I thought if I consumed it I must loosen up my clothes
But the Great Big Baked Potato soon was lodged in my inside,
And I was glad and happy on the N.P. Road to ride
But I’ve been busy thinking, and wondering ever since
How the Great Big Baked Potato could be furnished for ten cents.
Of course I ordered other thing and on them I did dine,
But I cannot forget that Lovely Spud, it was so very fine.
That N.P. road sure does the things that makes their service best.
I always try to ride with them when traveling in the West.
Their milk and cream and vegetables are always nice and fresh
Of course their stuff is raised upon their farm at Paradise
Then here’s to the N.P. Railroad, Doctor Spud, and the man,
Who makes you travel happily and does what ‘ere he can,
To serve you well and promptly and all regardless of expense:
A Great Big Baked Potato that only cost ten cents.
And of course, the chorus:
Oh! you Great Big Baked Potato, you are Irish thro and thro,
You may talk of your onions, your garlic or stew,
But just try that “Potato” it’s good for you.
If you want a “sure thing” hunch,
For your breakfast, dinner or lunch,
On the N.P.R.R. in the Dining Car,
Get a Great Big Baked P-O-TA-TO.
Sing along to the piano accompaniment here:
Interested in more detail on this story? Visit these two great blog posts, and potentially fall down a railroad history rabbit hole:
Taters and Trains: The Great Big Baked Potato and the Northern Pacific Line