What Was It Like to Ride the Transcontinental Railroad?
Velvet cushions and gold frame mirrors. Antelope, trout, berry and champagne festivals. In 1869, a New York Times The reporter experienced the height of luxury – and he did it not in a golden age mogul’s living room, but on a train going from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, California.
A few years ago, the author would have had to rely on a bumpy stagecoach or a covered wagon to undertake a journey that took months. Now he was gliding along the rails, passing through the varied landscapes of the American West while dining, sleeping and relaxing.
The ride was “not only tolerable but comfortable, and not only comfortable but a lifelong pleasure,” he wrote. “At the end of our trip [we] We found ourselves not only totally free from fatigue, but completely rehabilitated in body and mind. Have we been very far from being wrong if we voted for the success of the Pacific Railroad? ”
The author was just one of the thousands who flocked to the Transcontinental Railroad from 1869. The railroad, which spanned nearly 2,000 miles between Iowa, Nebraska and California, reduced travel time across the West from about six months by railcar or 25 days by stagecoach to just four days. And for travelers who have tried the new transportation route, the Transcontinental Railroad represented both the pinnacle of modern technology and the tempting possibility of unrestricted travel.
Railways crossing ‘untouched’ indigenous lands
The first passenger train on the line took 102 hours to travel from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, and a first-class ticket costs $ 134.50 – the equivalent of about $ 2,700 today. He traveled what was called the Overland Route, weaving through meadows, mountains and deserts that were almost impassable a few years before.
Passengers were in awe of the beauty and seeming desolation of the landscape. “For hundreds of miles, we didn’t see anyone but every now and then a station with a few shacks on it,” wrote Celia Cooley Graves, a woman from Massachusetts who took the Overland Route to in San Francisco in 1875.
At the time, the areas through which the train was built were not yet home to large numbers of white settlers. In fact, millions of acres of land crossed by the new railroad belonged to Indigenous peoples – but the US Congress had granted these lands to railroad companies.
For many Aboriginal nations, the railroads represented an unwanted intrusion as they soon introduced a wave of white colonization. Trains supplied those moving from the east and allowed those with the means to use the railroad instead of boxcars.
READ MORE: 10 Ways The Transcontinental Railroad Changed America
First class luxury passenger cars
The westward journey on the railroads was not only faster and easier than boxcars, it could also be luxurious. First-class passengers reveled in what they saw as the comfort and modernity of the trains themselves. The wagons were “a constant pleasure,” wrote Henry T. Williams in an 1876 guide to rail travel in the West. “We live at home in the Palace Car with as much pleasure as in the living room.”
Williams was referring to the Pullman Palace coaches, ornate train coaches used for first-class passengers on the Union Pacific Railroad. The carriages, which included sleepers, dining cars, and lounge cars, were richly decorated and full of lavish details like intricately carved wood and velvet drapes. Unlike the rich and famous salons of the Golden Age, palace cars were open to anyone who could afford the fee.
According to historian Lucius Morris Beebe, this had a lasting effect on American culture. “Before [Pullman’s] the first palace cars, quite a few Americans had any idea what constituted true luxury, ”he writes; “Three decades of direct contact with the manifestations of opulence available in cars have created a universal demand for a wealthy life that has had a profound effect on the US economy and the nation’s way of life that has not yet disappeared.
The elaborate cars were particularly influential for female travelers. At the time, traveling in public or doing it alone was considered very unusual and undesirable for middle and upper class white women. But Pullman cars helped allay the fears of those who disliked seeing women stepping out of their “separate sphere” of home and family. According to historian Amy G. Richter, the living environment of the train cars and the presence of women in the parlor cars legitimized train travel for women and soothed those who feared that public life would endanger women. and moral order. .
Second and third class passengers faced a more difficult journey
But wealthy travelers weren’t the only ones taking the new trains. The rail system borrowed from the liners that brought unprecedented numbers of immigrants to the shores of the United States and offered different rates for different classes of travelers. Poorer travelers could take the rails for less, but their accommodations were less lavish than those of the wealthier passengers.
Second-class passengers had padded seats; Third-class passengers, or “emigrants,” paid half of what first-class passengers did, but had to sit on benches instead of seats and bring their own food. “Overland travel is no fairy tale for those who read it from a car!” wrote a reporter in 1878, noting the congestion and discomfort in ordinary passenger cars.
Racism has also invaded the rails. When British author Robert Lewis Stevenson took the train in 1879, he noted that there was an entire car just for Chinese passengers. Although up to 20,000 Chinese immigrants built the railroad, they were treated with contempt at the time, reflecting racist attitudes and socially sanctioned discrimination.
READ MORE: Building the transcontinental RR: how Chinese immigrants did it
Although blacks get on as passengers, they are more often seen as laborers or porters. From the 1860s, all carriers of the Pullman cars were black men. While the work can be degrading and perpetuate stereotypes that black men are servile and anonymous laborers at the mercy of white passengers, it has also helped build a middle class among black men.
READ MORE: Pullman carriers
Dangers of Travel on the Transcontinental Railway
Trains shortened the journey across the country, but they were not without risk. In 1872, for example, Walter Scott Fitz’s trip to San Francisco was literally derailed by a huge snowstorm that lasted for several weeks. The men on the train, including the passengers, had to dig it out of huge drifts of snow in Wyoming. Passengers were so dismayed by the constant stops that they organized what Fitz called an “outrage meeting” to express their outrage at the travel conditions. The hellish journey involved derailing, begging people who lived near their frequent stops to feed the passengers, and waiting days to get around.
“There was, of course, a lot of suffering among the second-class passengers and others who could not afford to buy supplies and who were locked in regular cars,” Fitz wrote. “The way they managed to eat, live and sleep with two people in each seat will always be a wonder to me… Such a mess of filth, stale air and dirty people that I never want to see again. The railway workers were so lazy that they refused to clean the cars, and on the rare occasions of cleaning, the passengers did it themselves. The four-day trip lasted three weeks.
Eventually, the whole of the United States came to be crossed by rail lines that predated modern highways. The railroad changed lives forever, allowing the settlement of whites in areas of the West once considered desolate and forbidden and allowing people to hit the border without the dangers of months of outdoor travel.
And for those who made the once unthinkable journey, the Transcontinental Railroad inspired awe and marveled at the vastness and beauty of the American West. “We watched at length and enchanted this scene of sublimity and beauty,” wrote Thomas A. Weed of an 1871 view of the Sierra Nevada. “With what interest have we looked at this land in the far west.”