- Historic Sites
The Transcontinental Railroad
What it was like for the first travelers
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Still another westbound traveler during that first year told of being shaken out of his seat when a Central Pacific train ran into a herd of cattle between Wadsworth and Clark’s Station, Nevada. The collision threw the locomotive off the track, but a telegrapher aboard climbed the nearest pole, tapped the line, and summoned a relief engine. During the eight-hour delay the hungry passengers butchered the dead cattle, built a fire, and cooked «teaks. Such encounters with cattle were among the most common causes of train wrecks in the West, and railroad men and ranchers were in constant friction for more than half a century over the rights of cattle to trespass on railroad property.
There were, of course, less-violent diversions than wrecks. At times on the journey, said Henry Williams in The Pacific Tourist , one could “sit and read, play games, and indulge in social conversation and glee.” By “glee” the guidebook author probably was referring to the improvised musicales and recitations that were especially popular among the Pullman passengers. In the early 1870’s some Pullman cars had organs intalled on them, and in the evenings amateur musicians as well as traveling troupes of professionals willingly gave performances. As one Pullman passenger described it, “music sounds upon the prairie and dies away far over the plains; merrymaking and jokes, conversation and reading pass the time pleasantly until ten o’clock, when we retire. … If people who are traveling together will only try to make those about them happy, then a good time is assured. The second night on the road we arranged a little entertainment in the car and invited the ladies and gentlemen from the other cars into our ‘improvised Music Hall.’ The exercises consisted principally of recitations, with the delineation of the characters of Grace Greenwood. … The young ladies sang for us; and we were all happy—for the time, at least.”
It was customary on Sundays to hold religious services in one of the cars. On a train rolling through western Wyoming in 1872, John Lester read the Episcopal service, the Reverend Mr. Murray delivered a sermon entitled “To Die Is Gain,” and a choir sang “Nearer, My God, To Thee” and the American national hymn. “Here in the very midst of the Rocky Mountain wilderness,” wrote Lester, “our thanksgivings were offered up; and our music floated out upon the air, and resounded through the deep caverns, and among the towering hills.”
According to most travelers the popular pastimes were cards, conversation, and reading. “We had an abundant supply of books and newspapers. A boy frequently traversed the train with a good store of novels, mostly English, periodicals, etc. … In the evening we had our section lighted, and played a solemn game of whist, or were initiated into the mysteries of euchre, or watched the rollicking game of poker being carried on by a merry party in the opposite section.”
There may have been some “rollicking” poker games on Pullman cars, but most of them were as deadly serious as the real money-making endeavors of the players in that gilded age of the robber barons. Brakeman Harry French told of witnessing such a game one evening in the course of his duties. “The car was loaded to capacity with wealthy stockmen, and I suspect, a number of fancy women. In the cramped quarters of the men’s smoking room, a highplay poker game was in progress. Gold pieces and bills were the stakes, and they were very much in evidence. I was particularly interested in one of the players. Fine clothes, careful barbering, diamond-decked fingers marked him as a gambler.” Poker-playing professional gamblers, fresh from the declining riverboat traffic of the Mississippi River, could indeed be found on almost any transcontinental train in the 1870*5, and many a greenhorn bound west to seek his fortune lost his nest egg before reaching the end of his journey.
By the time the passengers arrived at Sherman Summit on their second day out of Omaha, they had formed into the usual little groups and cliques, and knew each other by sight if not by name. Sherman Summit, the most elevated station on the Pacific railroad (the highest in the world, according to the guidebooks), was also the halfway point between Omaha and the Union Pacific’s end of track at Ogden. If the westbound express was on schedule, the engineer would stop his panting iron horse longer than usual at the Sherman water tank in order to give the passengers a chance to stretch their legs, inhale the rarefied air, and enjoy the view before crossing Dale Creek bridge and plunging down the mountains into Laramie for a noon meal stop.
At Sherman some passengers were afflicted with nosebleed from the height, or were badly chilled by the cold wind, and were glad to leave it behind. Others found it inspiring: “Never till this moment did I realize the truthfulness of Bierstadt’s scenery of these hills. The dark, deep shadows, the glistening sides, and the snow-capped peaks, with their granite faces, the stunted growth of pine and cedar, all render the scene such as he has painted it.” And another traveler, Dr. H. Buss, whose medical skill may have been better than his poetry, preserved the memory of his visit in verse: