Steam Road To El Dorado

Mile for mile, it cost more in dollars—and lives—than any railroad ever built

It was not long after the completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 that Bedford Clapperton Pirn declared with perfect composure that of all the world’s wonders none could surpass this one as a demonstration of man’s capacity to do great things against impossible odds. Read more »

Artists Of The Santa Fe


The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway grew in a cloud of violence that quickly became legendary. Wherever the fledgling railroad went in the 1870’s, it left a raw and brawling cow town in its wake. At the Colorado ranges gunplay broke out between the work crews of the Santa Fe and the rival Denver & Rio Grande.Read more »

Wood To Burn

No chapter in railroad history can rival the popular appeal of the wood-burning era. Its great funnel-shaped smokestack, gallant red paint, and polished brass have endeared the wood burner to generations of Americans. Its appearance during a western film raises an excitement second only to that caused by the nick-of-time arrival of the cavalry. Ah, but those imperial clouds of heavy black smoke pouring from Hollywood’s iron horses are as phony as the wagon master’s peril.Read more »

Death Stalked The Grand Reconnaissance

Our half-known new western empire was mapped, in a great mass exploration, by the Army’s Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853

The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853 —a grand national reconnaissance extending over half a continent and led by men who would later be counted among the most prominent soldiers and scientists of the Republic Read more »

Whistle Talk

Locomotive whistles had a language all their own

The switchmen knew by the whistle’s moans That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

As the ballad says, Casey Jones was a famous hand at the whistle. His was homemade, with six cylinders banded together, and he could make it cry like a plaintive whippoorwill, say prayers, or scream like a banshee. Read more »

Purveyor To The West

To a culinary wilderness Fred Harvey brought civilized cooking—and pretty girls to serve it.

A not inconsiderable number of agencies have been credited with bringing what passed for civilization to the Old West. First and foremost is the United States Cavalry, with the assistance of Sam Colt’s single-action frontier model pacifier and the Winchester magazine rifle. The peace officers and city marshals of the Kansas cow towns, again with an assist from Colt and Winchester, also rank high in popular esteem as agents of sweetness and light.


In a thousand tank towns and junctions across the land, he was a man boys wanted to be when they grew up.Read more »

Railroad In A Barn

Snowshed crews on the Central Pacific, battling blizzards and snowslides, built “the longest house in the world”

The Boomer Brakeman, a Paul Bunyan of western railroad lore, is supposed to have made the run over the Sierra Nevada mountains just once. For nearly forty continuous miles, in the 1890’s, the main line of the Central Pacific Railroad was covered by wooden snowsheds—a railroad enshrouded in one long, twilit forty-mile tunnel protecting the tracks and the transcontinental trains against some of the heaviest snows known to man.

Great Days Of The Overland Stage

Opening the mail route to California, the Butterfield coaches flew across the rugged, wild Southwest in twenty-five exhausting days

For a town which had been surveyed only a few months earlier, Tipton, Missouri, began life with a creditable little bang on October 9, 1858. That was the day the first Overland Mail stage arrived, twenty-three days and four hours out of San Francisco—a day that marked the beginning of regular mail service across the continent. Tipton was 160 miles west of St. Louis at the end of the Pacific Railroad, and from this tiny dot on the map, mail and passengers from the West were put aboard the trains to St. Louis, Cincinnati, and New York, completing a transcontinental journey in approximately four weeks.

The Great Rail Wreck At Revere

Single-track lines run by one-track minds gave the reformers of Boston their biggest cause since abolition

So long as it remained in public consciousness it was known as the Great Revere Disaster. Written or spoken it deserved the adjective, and the capitals. Worse railroad wrecks had happened before; worse were to come after. But none had such far-reaching results as this tragedy which in 1871 took place in the small Massachusetts village whose name sought to honor the state’s incomparably best-known hero. Read more »