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The Transcontinental Railroad

July 2024
26min read

What it was like for the first travelers

I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steamwhistle, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world… Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel, Tying the Eastern to the Western sea …
—Walt Whitman, Passage to India.

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.

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.

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.


Although only thinning herds of buffalo remained near the Union Pacific right-of-way after train travel began, the iron horses of the Kansas Pacific (which ran less than two hundred miles to the south and connected with the Union Pacific at Cheyenne) occasionally were surrounded by buffalo and had to slow down or wait until the herd passed. One traveler on the Kansas Pacific told of seeing a herd that extended as far as the eye could reach. “With heads down and tails up they galloped towards the track making extraordinary exertions to get across ahead of the locomotive. In trying this strategic feat one specimen found himself forcibly lifted into the air and thrown into the ditch, where he lay upon his back, his cloven feet nourishing madly.”

In its early days, before connections were scheduled with other railroads, the Kansas Pacific engineers willingly stopped trains to permit the passengers to leave the cars and shoot at passing buffalo. “Everybody runs out and commences shooting,” lawyer John Putnam of Topeka wrote a friend in 1868. “We failed to bag a buffalo. I did not shoot, having ill defined ideas as to hunting rifles, which end you put the load in and which end you let it out at … But I rushed out with the rest—yelled promiscuously—‘Buffalo!—Stop the train’—‘let me out’’‘there they are!—Whoop-pey’—‘Give ‘em thunder’—‘no go’—‘Come back’—‘drive on’— So you see I helped a good deal.”

The buffalo and other animals entertained the travelers against a constantly changing background of scenery which grew more and more fascinating as they left the plains behind. The first glimpse of the snowy range of the Rocky Mountains always sent a wave of excitement through the passenger cars. “My boyish dreams were realized,” one man recorded. “For hours, at the school desk, have I pondered over the map and wandered, in imagination, with Lewis and Clark, the hunters and trappers and early emigrants, away off to these Rocky Mountains, about which such a mystery seemed to hang,—dreaming, wishing and hoping against hope, that my eyes might, some day, behold their snow-crowned heights. And here lay the first great range in the pureness of white; distant, to be sure, but there it lay, enshrined in beauty.”

Wyoming was filled with wonders for these journeyers from the East, but when the iron horse brought them through tunnels into Utah’s Echo and Weber canyons, they were at a loss for superlatives to describe the towering castlelike rocks. “Grand beyond description … castles in the air … fantastic shapes and profiles … the scene is as fearful as it is sublime.” Shortly after entering the Narrows of Weber Canyon, virtually everyone made note of the Thousand-mile Tree, a single green pine in a desolation of rock and sage, marking the distance from Omaha. European travelers compared Weber Canyon to gateways to the Alps. Castle Rock, Hanging Rock, Pulpit Rock, Devil’s Gate, Devil’s Slide—all entered the notebooks of scribbling passengers who seemed to disagree as to whether they were creations of God or Satan.

Along the way were occasional reminders of pioneers of a previous day—the bones of long-dead oxen and horses beside the deep-rutted trails where covered wagons had crawled, a solitary grave marker, a broken wheel, a piece of discarded furniture. “Inch by inch, the teams toiled to gain a higher foothold,” said one appreciative train traveler, “inch by inch they climbed down the rugged passes; now in luxurious coaches, with horses of iron, with a skilled engineer for a driver we are carried along in comfort.”

When there were no animals or scenery to entertain or awe, there was always the ever-changing weather of the West. The train on which Harvey Rice was journeying to California in 1869 ran through a typically violent Great Plains thunderstorm. “The heavens became, suddenly, as black as starless midnight. The lightning flashed in every direction, and electric balls of fire rolled over the plains. It seemed as if the artillery of heaven had made the valley a target and that we were doomed to instant destruction. But happily our fears were soon dissipated. The storm was succeeded by a brilliant rainbow.”

Heavy rains were likely to flood the tracks, and in the early years before roadbeds were well ballasted the ties sank into the mud. One traveler was startled to see the car behind him churning up such a foam of mud that it resembled a boat rushing along on water. It was not unusual for hailstorms to break car windows, and tornadoes could lift a train off the track. One of the legends of the Kansas Pacific concerns a tornadic waterspout that dropped out of a massive thunderstorm, washed out six thousand feet of track, and swallowed up a freight train. “Although great efforts were made to find it,” said Charles B. George, a veteran railroad man, “not a trace of it has ever been discovered.”

Winter travelers could expect magnificent snowstorms or fierce blizzards which sometimes turned a journey across the continent into an ordeal. On William Rae’s return trip east from California in the winter of 1870, the engine pulling his train fought a two-hour battle with a snowstorm across four miles of the Laramie plains. The delay played havoc with train schedules on the single-track Union Pacific, but Rae reported that the hot-air stove in his Pullman car kept it “as comfortable as the best-warmed room in an English house.”

Rae might not have been so fortunate had he been traveling on the Kansas Pacific, which suffered as severely from blizzards as it did from thunder squalls. High winds drifted both snow and sand into cuts, leveling them across the tops, and the sturdy little wood-burning locomotives would have to back up, be uncoupled from the cars, and then run at full speed into the snowbanked cuts. This was called “bucking the snow,” and usually had to be repeated several times before it was effective. Engineer Cy Warman told of bucking an eighteen-foot drift with double engines so hard that his locomotive trembled and shook as if it were about to be crushed to pieces. “Often when we came to a stop only the top of the stack of the front engine would be visible. … All this time the snow kept coming down, day and night, until the only signs of a railroad across the range were the tops of the telegraph poles.” If the passengers were lucky, the train was backed to the nearest station, but even then conditions might be harsh. A group of snowbound train travelers who crowded into a hotel in Hays City, Kansas, spent an uncomfortably cold night and at daylight found their beds covered with snow which had drifted through cracks in walls and roof.

The universal desire of all pioneer travelers on the transcontinental was to see a “real wild Indian.” Few of them did, because the true warriors of the plains hated the iron horse and seldom came within miles of it. After the resisting tribes finally realized they could not stop the building of the Union Pacific’s tracks, their leaders signed treaties which removed their people from the broad swaths of land taken by the railroad. As the buffalo herds also fled far to the north and south, there was no economic reason for the horse Indians to approach the tracks. The Indians that the travelers saw were mostly those who had been corrupted and weakened by contacts with the white man’s civilization—scroungers, mercenaries, or beggars by necessity.

Except for a few acculturated representatives of Mississippi Valley tribes (who still plaited their hair but wore white man’s clothing and frequented railroad stations from Chicago to Omaha) the westbound travelers’ first glimpse of Plains Indians was around the Loup Fork in Nebraska where the Pawnees lived on a reservation. Although the Pawnees had virtually abandoned their horsebuffalo culture and lived off what they could cadge from white men, the warriors still shaved their heads to a tuft, painted their faces, and wore feathers and blankets. To travelers fresh from the East the Pawnees had a very bloodthirsty appearance, and according to the guidebooks every one of them had several scalps waving from the tops of lodgepoles.

Anywhere across western Nebraska or Wyoming, a traveler might catch a quick glimpse of a passing Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, or Crow staring at the iron horse, but they were few and far between. Not until the train reached Nevada was there a plenitude of Shoshones and Paiutes hanging about every station and using their treaty rights with the Central Pacific to ride the cars back and forth. Because these desert Indians were generally covered with dust and were often unbathed (there was no water readily available), the fastidious passengers found them objectionable, and the Central Pacific gradually put restrictions on their use of trains. At first they were confined to the emigrants’ coaches, and then after the emigrants objected to their presence, the Indians had to ride in the baggage cars or outside on the boarding steps.

Despite these docile remnants of the Great Plains tribes, some travelers spent a good deal of time worrying about Indian attacks. But train wrecks, and not ambushes, were the most immediate danger. Because of the relatively slow speeds of the early years, bruises rather than fatalities were the likely results unless the accident occurred on a high bridge or mountain shoulder. Poor tracks and hot boxes (overheating of axle bearings) caused many wrecks, and a surprising number of passengers suffered injuries from falling or jumping out of open car windows. One of the pioneer passengers of 1869 recorded how it felt to be in a train wreck in Echo Canyon: “On we bounded over the ties, the car wheels breaking many of them as though they were but pipe-stems. Every instant we expected to roll down the ravine. We ordered the ladies to cling to the sides of the seats and keep their feet clear of the floor. It seemed as if that train could never be stopped! But it was brought to a standstill upon the brink of an embankment. Had the cars gone a few rods further the reader would probably never have been troubled by these hastily written pages.”

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:

Now, Sherman on the Rocky Mountain range, Eight thousand feet is raised toward the sky, Indian, Chinese, and many people strange, Are met or passed as o’er the earth you fly.

After lunch at Laramie, where “the people around the station are more intelligent-looking than at any place since leaving Omaha,” the train was soon across Medicine Bow River and into Carbon Station. Coal had been discovered there and was rapidly replacing wood for fuel on the Union Pacific locomotives. Westbound travelers usually crossed Wyoming’s deserts after nightfall, but even by moonlight the endless sweep of dry sagebrush and greasewood was described by various travelers as dreary, awful, lifeless. They complained of burning eyes and sore lips caused by the clouds of alkali dust swirled up into the cars, and thought Bitter Creek and Salt Wells appropriately descriptive names for stations.

About sunrise the train arrived at Green River for a breakfast stop, and for the next hundred miles everyone looked forward to the moment of crossing into Utah Territory, the land of the Mormons and their plural wives. Wahsatch was the noon dining station, and every passenger from the East who stepped down from the train peered expectantly around for Mormons, but the What Cheer Eating House looked about the same as all the others they had seen.

At Ogden, passengers awaiting connecting trains frequently had to spend many hours in a long narrow wooden building which had been erected between the tracks of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. In addition to ticket offices and a large dining room, sleeping rooms furnished only with curtains for doors were available upstairs. One Englishwoman considered her enforced stay there an adventure: “Except for the passing trains this is a most lonely, isolated spot, weird and still, lying in the heart of the mountains. In the evening a blinding snowstorm came on, and the wind, howling fearfully with a rushing mighty sound, shook the doors and rattled at the windows as though it wanted to come in and warm itself at our blazing wood fire.”

Upon boarding the Central Pacific at Ogden, the firstclass passengers found themselves in Silver Palace cars instead of Pullmans. Collis Huntington and his Big Four partners refused to accept George Pullman’s arrangement for the use of his sleeping cars and ordered their own constructed. The Silver Palaces were attractive with their white metallic interiors, but although they were outfitted with private sitting rooms and smoking rooms, they lacked the luxurious touches which travelers from the East had grown accustomed to in their Pullmans. Passengers complained that their berths were not as roomy or as comfortable, and some said the cars were often too cold. Eventually the Central Pacific had to give up the Silver Palaces because transcontinental passengers resented having to change from their Pullmans.

The Cosmopolitan Hotel of booming Elko, Nevada, was the first dining stop west of Ogden. Alkali dust swirled in streets filled with freight wagons drawn by long mule teams hauling supplies to miners in nearby Pine Valley. Chinese workers discharged by the railroad had established a colony here and were much in evidence around the hotel. Beyond Elko was the valley of the Humboldt and the crossing of Nevada’s barren deserts. In summer, passengers choked on dust if they left the windows open, or sweltered in heat if they closed them. After passing Winnemucca, the iron horse turned southward to the Humboldt Sink (where the river was literally swallowed up by the desert) and thereafter, instead of facing the sun, continued a southwesterly course to the Sierra.

By this time the passengers were beginning to show the effects of several days travel, “a drooping, withered, squeezed-lemon appearance,” as one observer put it. “There were the usual crumpled dresses, loose hanging and wayward curls, and ringlets, and possibly soiled hands and faces; which reduces the fair sex from that state of perfect immaculateness. …” Even the self-reliant Susan Coolidge admitted that after two or three days on the Pacific railroad she began to hate herself because she could not contend with the pervasive dust which no amount of brushing or shaking could completely remove from her hair and clothing. And one of the most frequent complaints of all early travelers was the discomfort caused by “the very oppressive smoke” from locomotives which constantly drifted into the cars.

The bracing air of the Sierra, however, was a perfect restorative for the weary travelers. With two locomotives pulling the cars, the train slowly climbed the winding canyon of the Truckee River, rising eighty feet to the mile. Pine and fir replaced the dreary desert sagebrush, and then came a spectacular view of Donner Lake encircled by forested mountains. The guidebooks told the travelers all about the gruesome tragedy of the Donner Party during the winter of 1846–47. And then, as one observer wrote, “after snorting and puffing, whistling and screaming, for an hour and a quarter, our pair of Iron Horses stop in the snow-sheds at the station called ‘Summit.’ Here we have a good breakfast, well cooked and fairly served; although we could not expect waiters enough to attend in a rush such as they have when the passengers, with appetites sharpened by mountain-air and a long ride, seat themselves at table, and all with one voice cry, ‘Steak! coffee! bread! trout! waiter! a napkin!’”

From the summit of the Sierra to Sacramento was 105 miles, a drop from 7,017 feet to thirty feet above sea level. According to William Humason, fifty miles of the descent was made without the aid of steam. “The conductor and brakeman ran the train with brakes on most of the way.” For some travelers the ride down the western slope of the range was terrifying, and the coasting trains made so little noise that unwary railroad workers, especially in the snowsheds, were often struck and killed. “The velocity with which the train rushed down this incline, and the suddenness with which it wheeled around the curves,” said William Rae, “produced a sensation which cannot be reproduced in words. … The axle boxes smoked with the friction, and the odour of burning wood pervaded the cars. The wheels were nearly red hot. In the darkness of the night they resembled discs of flame.”


Corresponding somewhat to the biggest drop and swing of a modern amusement park’s roller coaster was Cape Horn, nine miles below Dutch Flat. The guidebooks warned timid passengers not to look down upon the awful gorge of the American River two thousand feet below, and John Beadle said that although Cape Horn offered the finest view in the Sierra, the sight was not good for nervous people. “We’re nearing Cape Horn!” someone would always cry out, and the next moment the train would careen around a sharp curve. “We follow the track around the sides of high mountains,” said William Humason, “looking down into a canyon of awful depth, winding around for miles, until we almost meet the track we have before been over—so near that one would think we could almost throw a stone across. We have been around the head of the canyon, and have, therefore, ‘doubled Cape Horn.’”

Almost as fascinating as the scenery and the rollercoaster ride were the Sierra snowsheds built by engineer Arthur Brown. When passenger service began, these sheds—built with sharp sloping roofs against the mountainsides so that deep snowfalls and avalanches would slide right off them—covered forty miles of track between Truckee and Cape Horn. After numerous passengers complained that the walls blocked their view of the magnificent mountains, the Central Pacific responded by cutting windows at the level of those of the passenger cars. The result was a series of flickering scenes somewhat like those of an early motion picture, but even this pleasure was denied Sierra travelers during the snowy months of winter when the openings had to be closed again.

“A blarsted long depot—longest I ever saw,” was the comment of an oft-quoted anonymous Englishman as he passed through the snowsheds, and another British traveler said he had never seen “a more convenient arrangement for a long bonfire. The chimney of every engine goes fizzing through it like a squib, and the woodwork is as dry as a bone.” To prevent fires the Central Pacific kept watchmen at regular intervals inside the sheds, with water barrels and hand pumps always ready to extinguish blazes set by sparks from locomotives. There was little they could do, however, against the forest fires which sometimes swept across sections of sheds. And sturdy though the structures were, an occasional mighty avalanche would crush one of them. The train on which Lady Hardy was traveling was delayed all night by the collapse of a shed while fifty male volunteers from among the passengers went ahead to clear the tracks.

The snowsheds not only covered the main track, they also enclosed stations, switch tracks, turntables, and houses where workmen lived with their families. Children were born in this eerie, dimly lit world where without warning a huge boulder or avalanche might crash through the roof, where trains derailed with disastrous results, and at least on one occasion wild animals escaped from a wrecked circus train to terrify the inhabitants. As snowplows were improved, some sheds were removed, others were replaced with concrete, and the army of workmen declined to a handful of lookouts and track walkers.


Although passage through the Sierra was their introduction to California, most westbound travelers did not feel that they had truly reached that golden land until their iron horse brought them down into the blazing sunshine and balmy air of the Sacramento Valley and the flowers and orchards of the Queen City of the Plain. “We seem in a new world,” said one. “The transition was sudden and the transformation magical,” said another. “The sun descended in a flood of glory toward the Pacific Ocean.” In Sacramento they were still more than a hundred miles from the Pacific, and like inspired pilgrims most decided to travel on to that legendary Western sea. Until 1870 they transferred to the cars of the California Pacific, which took them to Vallejo—where again they had to change, this time to a steamboat running down the bay to San Francisco. After the Central Pacific completed its subsidiary Western Pacific to Oakland in 1870, the journey was easier, although they still made the final crossing by boat before reaching San Francisco and the Pacific shore. After a week of noise, dust, and locomotive smoke the first act of those travelers who could afford it was to register at the magnificent Palace Hotel and seek out a quiet room and a warm bath.

And what were the feelings of travelers after they had completed their first journey by rail across the American continent? Those from other countries were impressed by the grandeur of the Western land, and of course they made comparisons with their own nations, sometimes favorable, sometimes unfavorable. They found travel by train across the West less tedious because they could walk about in the cars and stand on the platforms to enjoy the passing landscapes, yet at the same time they complained of the lack of privacy. They praised the comforts of the Pullman cars, but deplored the necessity for constantly changing trains. They confessed that before the journey they had feared the rumored American defiance of rules and regulations and recklessness in regard to speed, but they were pleased to find that American railway men held human life in as high regard as it was held in their native lands.

American travelers on the other hand were more concerned with feelings of national pride. After crossing the vastness of the American West, the endless unclaimed fertile lands, the prairies and forests, the broad rivers and towering mountains, they felt that they had seen a new map unrolled, a new empire revealed, a new civilization in process of creation. In the first years after the Civil War, the salvation of the Union was still a glorious promise of destiny. “I felt patriotically proud,” wrote one traveler to California. He saw the transcontinental railroad as a force binding the Union together “by links of iron that can never be broken.” Although Americans were aware that private corporations had built this first railroad to the Pacific, they rejoiced in the belief that California was a rich prize of empire which had been won for them by those connecting links of iron. In their first flush of triumphant pride, they viewed the railroad as a cooperative venture shared by the builders and the people. The disillusionment would come later, as would their doubts in an everexpanding empire.

For Americans and foreigners alike, there was a deepening sense of wonder at this final link in the encirclement of the earth by steam power. From San Francisco they could now journey to China and Suez by steam-powered vessels, from Suez to Alexandria by rail, from Alexandria to France by water, from France to Liverpool by rail and water, from Liverpool to New York by water, and from New York to San Francisco by rail. In reaching the Western sea, the iron horse had shrunk the planet.


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