- Historic Sites
The Transcontinental Railroad
What it was like for the first travelers
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
On May 15, 1869, regular train service began on America’s first transcontinental railroad. Thousands of Americans who had become accustomed to train travel in the Eastern states could now journey behind an iron horse all the way to Walt Whitman’s Western sea. Although it was not possible—except in cases of special excursions—to board a car in an Eastern city and journey uninterrupted to California, most of these pioneer travelers seemed to look upon the necessary transfers in Chicago and Omaha, and Promontory or Ogden, as welcome breaks in an eight to ten days adventure.
“Every man who could command the time and money was eager to make the trip,” declared that energetic traveling reporter John Beadle, “and everybody who could sling ink became correspondents.” From the very beginning, many travelers did indeed seem compelled to make a written record of their experiences. Their accounts were usually very sketchy until they passed Chicago or Omaha. During the first year of transcontinental service, passengers from the East arrived in Chicago on the Michigan Central Railroad, but by the mid-i87o’s they had their choice of connections from the Pennsylvania, Erie, or New York Central.
“Seventy-five minutes are allowed for getting from the station of arrival to the station of departure,” said William F. Rae, an Englishman who made the journey late in 1869. “In my own case the times of the trains did not correspond; the one train had started an hour before the other arrived.” Because he had planned to stop over briefly in Chicago, Rae was not disappointed by the enforced delay of twenty-four hours, but many of his fellow passengers were, and for another century travelers through Chicago would continue to suffer the inconvenience of changing trains and failure to make connections. During the heyday of American railroad passenger travel, one of the common sayings was that a hog could travel across country through Chicago without changing cars, but a human being could not.
To reach the Union Pacific from Chicago, travelers had their choice of two direct routes, the Rock Island or the Northwestern, and an indirect route, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. Knowledgeable people taking the direct routes soon learned to avoid the evening express trains which left them stranded in Council Bluffs or Omaha for almost twenty-four hours while they awaited the departure of the U.P.’s daily train for the Pacific Coast.
Until a bridge was completed across the Missouri River in 1872, westbound travelers also had to endure a crossing in a ferryboat from Council Bluffs to Omaha. And even after the bridge was built, the railroads refused to be cooperative enough to take the cars of the Eastern roads across the river to the Union Pacific station. Arriving in Council Bluffs, passengers had to remove themselves and their baggage to the cars of the Transfer Company. John Erastus Lester of Providence, Rhode Island, who traveled west in 1872 in hopes of improving his health, said that passage by the Transfer Company “caused more hard words to be spoken than can be erased from the big book for many a day.” He was not only disenchanted by the company’s treatment of passengers but by its requirement that all freight be unloaded from Eastern cars and then repacked for shipment across the river.
Early travelers on the transcontinental railroad saw little to admire about Omaha. One found it to be “the muddiest place I ever saw,” but added that “the roads are generally deep with dust.” Another also described the town as being layered with mud through which “the omnibus labored slowly, the outside passengers being advised by the driver to move about from one side of the roof to another, in order to guard against upsetting the overloaded vehicle. A general feeling of relief was manifested when the station of the Union Pacific Railway was reached.”
Almost all agreed they had seldom seen such bustling confusion as developed at the Omaha station at the times for train departures. During the early years when the journey west was considered a daring enterprise, rumors were deliberately spread among the greenhorn ticket buyers of danger from wild Indians wrecking or attacking trains; this of course aided the Omaha railroad agents in the sale of insurance policies for the journey.