- Historic Sites
The Transcontinental Railroad
What it was like for the first travelers
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Except for a quick whistle from the engine and the conductor’s cry of “All aboard!” there was no warning of the train’s departure. This usually resulted in a rush of passengers who had to hop on board the moving cars. “For three or four miles we pass along the bluffs on which Omaha is built,” John Lester recorded, “and then push out upon the open prairie, the fertile lands of Nebraska. A vast plain, dotted here and there with trees, stretches away upon every side.”
In springtime the rolling land was covered with wildflowers whose fragrance drifted into the open windows of cars moving along at twenty miles an hour; in summer tumbleweeds by the thousands wheeled across the drying grass; and by autumn prairie fires blazed against the horizon. “The spectacle of a prairie on fire is one of infinite grandeur,” said William Rae. “For miles on every side the air is heavy with volumes of stifling smoke, and the ground reddened with hissing and rushing fire.”
Travelers from abroad found the Great Plains grass to be shorter than they had expected, and they compared the wind-driven sweep of grayish green to ocean waves, “undulating like the Atlantic with a heavy groundswell.” They also complained of their eyes wearying at the sameness of landscape, of the train seeming to be standing still in an immense void. All welcomed the first break in the monotony of the plains—the Platte River, which the railroad followed westward as had the wagon trains of earlier years.
When the transcontinental railroad opened for service, George Mortimer Pullman had been manufacturing experimental models of his sleeping cars for four years, and the Union Pacific accepted several of them in 1869. They were called Pullman Palace Cars and their exteriors were painted in rich brown colors to distinguish them from the drab coaches. Everyone who could afford the additional $25 for first-class fare and $4 per day for a Pullman Palace Car was eager to obtain a berth. First-class travelers paid f 100 for the journey from Omaha to Sacramento; secondclass or coach $75. There was also a special rate of $40 for immigrants, who rode on cramped board seats. Four to five days were usually required to complete the journey by express, six to seven days by mixed train. The speed of trains varied according to the conditions of tracks and bridges, dropping to nine miles per hour over hastily built sections and increasing to thirty-five miles per hour over smoother tracks. Most travelers of the early 1870*5 mentioned eighteen to twenty-two miles per hour as the average. Although speeds were doubled within a decade, time-consuming stops and starts at more than two hundred stations and water tanks prevented any considerable reduction in total hours spent on the long journey.
Even in an era when the most highly skilled Americans earned less than $100 a month, demand for hundreddollar Pullman space on the transcontinental railroad was so great that the Union Pacific began running three sleeping cars on some trains early in 1870 and was still turning away would-be ticket buyers. Because of George Pullman’s interest in the Union Pacific, he supplied that railroad with de luxe innovations long before they reached the Eastern roads. Travelers heard or read about the Palace Cars and were eager to ride on them no matter what the cost. “I had a sofa to myself, with a table and a lamp,” wrote one satisfied rider. “The sofas are widened and made into beds at night. My berth was three feet three inches wide, and six feet three inches long. It had two windows looking out of the train, a handsome mirror, and was well furnished with bedding and curtains.”
British travelers were especially impressed, and sent off earnest letters to railway directors in London urging them “to take a leaf out of the Americans’ book, and provide sleeping carriages for long night journeys.” They also delighted in the freedom of movement from one car to another, although the traveler who signed himself “A London Parson” admitted that trying to dress one’s self in a box two feet high was a bit inconvenient. “It was an odd experience, that going to bed of some thirty ladies, gentlemen, and children, in, practically, one room. For two nights I had a young married couple sleeping in the berth above mine. The lady turned in first, and presently her gown was hung out over the rail to which her bed curtains were fastened. But further processes of unrobing were indicated by the agitation of the drapery which concealed her nest. As the same curtain served for both berths—hers and mine—the gentleman held her portion together over my head when it was necessary for me to retire. At last all were housed, and some snores rose above the rattle of the train. I did not sleep much the first night, but looked over the moonlit prairie from my pillow.”
Although Pullman introduced a “hotel car” in 1870 with a kitchen at one end from which meals were served on removable tables set between the drawing-room seats, the Union Pacific scheduled the car for only one trip each week. Until well into the i88o’s the transcontinental railroad fed its passengers at dining stations along the way, allowing them thirty minutes to obtain their food and bolt it down before resuming the journey.