- Historic Sites
The Transcontinental Railroad
What it was like for the first travelers
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Judging from comments of travelers, the food varied from wretched to middling fair. The first dining stop out of Omaha was Grand Island. “Ill cooked and poorly served,” was one passenger’s blunt comment. “We found the quality on the whole bad,” said William Robertson of Scotland, “and all three meals, breakfast, dinner and supper, were almost identical, viz., tea, buffalo steaks, antelope chops, sweet potatoes, and boiled Indian corn, with hoe cakes and syrup ad nauseam .” New Yorker Susan Coolidge also complained about the sameness of diet. “It was necessary to look at one’s watch to tell whether it was breakfast, dinner or supper that we were eating, these meals presenting invariably the same salient features of beefsteak, fried eggs, fried potato.” She was generous enough to compliment the chef at Sidney, Nebraska, for serving “cubes of fried mush which diversified a breakfast of unusual excellence.” Harvey Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, described the Sidney breakfast station as a crude structure of boards and canvas. “Here the passengers were replenished with an excellent breakfast—a chicken stew, as they supposed, but which, as they were afterward informed, consisted of prairie-dogs—a new variety of chickens, without feathers. This information created an unpleasant sensation in sundry delicate stomachs.”
According to William L. Humason of Hartford, Connecticut, the farther one traveled across the plains the worse the dining stations became, “consisting of miserable shanties, with tables dirty, and waiters not only dirty, but saucy. The tea tasted as though it were made from the leaves of the sage-brush—literally sage tea . The biscuit was made without soda, but with plenty of alkali, harmonizing with the great quantity of alkali dust we had already swallowed.” The only dining station Humason had a good word for was at Cisco, California, where the water on the table was as clear as crystal, but he thought a dollar and a quarter was “a pretty steep price to pay for fried ham and potatoes.”
At most dining stops, meal prices were one dollar, and on the California section of the Central Pacific the prices were reduced to seventy-five cents if the diner paid in silver rather than in paper money. Neither the Union Pacific nor the Central Pacific operated their eating houses, preferring to contract them to private individuals, with no required standard of service. Most of them were in rough frame buildings filled with long tables upon which large platters of food were waiting when passengers descended from the trains. Gradually the individual stations achieved reputations for certain specialties such as beefsteak at Laramie, hot biscuits at Green River, antelope at Sidney, fish at Colfax. The most frequently praised dining stop was Evanston, Wyoming, where mountain trout was the specialty. “It was kept by a colored man named Howard W. Crossley whose evident desire was to please all,” wrote John Lester. He added that most “proprietors of the eatingstations ought to be promoted to higher callings; for they are evidently above running a hotel.”
Because Cheyenne was listed in the guidebooks as the largest city between Omaha and Sacramento, many passengers expected a superior quality of food service there. They were disappointed to find a small town of board and canvas buildings occupied (as one wrote) by about three thousand “dangerous-looking miners in big boots, broadbrimmed hats, and revolvers.” The only added feature in the dining station was a formidable row of heads of biggame animals which glared down from the walls upon the famished passengers. “The chops were generally as tough as hanks of whipcord, and the knives as blunt as bricklayers’ trowels,” one traveler reported.
Between stops for meals the passengers were diverted by a procession of unfamiliar wildlife along each side of the track, antelope and prairie dogs being the most commonly seen. Far more antelope than buffalo ranged along the Union Pacific tracks, and long files of these fleet-footed animals often approached very close to passing trains, apparently racing with the cars, and usually winning. Although the Union Pacific frowned upon the practice, eager hunters sometimes fired upon these animals with rifles and pistols from the open windows of the cars. Few hits were recorded.
Prairie-dog villages also were close enough so that passengers could observe these gregarious rodents sitting at the entrances to their burrows. “They fling themselves in the air with a gay nimbleness beautiful to see, flip a somersault, and present to the admiring gaze of the traveler two furry heels and a short furry tail as they make their exit from the stage of action,” wrote one passenger.
Elk, wolves, and bears were often seen as the iron horse thundered across the West, and one traveler was sure that he saw a pack of wild dogs trotting along parallel with the railroad, until he learned that they were coyotes. Swarms of grasshoppers and crickets were another unfamiliar sight; they sometimes descended upon the tracks and caused the locomotive wheels to spin into a temporary stall.