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Nineteenth Century Rail Travel

By Caroline Clemmons
Rail travel’s hypnotic rhythm, unique smells, and the sense of adventure stir the imagination, but a few basic facts offer enlightenment to the advent of personal travel by train. The first commercial rail cars were in England in—believe it or not—1630—and were drawn by horses over wooden rails to transport coal. By the mid 1700’s, iron rails had replaced wood. The first steam-powered land vehicle built by Frenchman Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769 laid the foundation for future locomotives.

In the United States, Congress had invested heavily in the Eerie Canal and other waterways and resisted the idea of railroads. Public opinion eventually won. In 1827, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was the first railroad charter granted in the United States. By 1852, its three hundred miles of track made this the longest railroad in the world. At first used only for transporting goods, passenger service soon developed. Once the transcontinental rail lines were completed in 1869, America was opened to settlers from all over the world.

A wide variety of facilities awaited passengers. On some lines, the coaches were little more than rough structures that offered no comfort. Wooden benches with high backs—many times without a cushion of any kind—tortured passengers on a long journey. By comparison, it probably was no worse than riding in a wagon, and the train made the trip faster. Other lines had coaches with padded bench seats, and still others with movable armchairs. Toilets sometimes were no more than a curtained off chamber pot offering minimal privacy. Summer forced passengers to choose between tolerating soot, smoke and dust with the windows open, or sweltering with windows closed. In winter, passengers near the potbellied stove roasted while those at the other end of the car froze. Sometimes cars were reserved for women and their escorts and no males traveling without family were allowed in these coaches. Often as not, all travelers jumbled together.

Soon lines developed luxury cars designed to mimic fine hotel lobbies. A major advance occurred when George M. Pullman began his line of luxury cars called Pullman Palace Cars. His company developed hotel cars, sleeping cars, club cars, dining cars, and drawing room cars. According to George Deeming, Curator of the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, these coaches required high fees similar to luxury hotels and were not available to the masses. The first Pullman sleeping car appeared in 1859 at only forty feet long. It was a reconstructed wooden day coach with metal wheels and a low, flat roof. A tall man was likely to bump his head. It had ten upper and ten lower berths with mattresses and blankets, but no sheets. A one-person toilet stood at one end. Two small wood-burning stoves furnished heat and candles provided light.

In 1865, the first real Pullman sleeping car came into service. It featured the first upper berth that folded out of sight for daytime, heated air from a hot air furnace under the floor, upper deck window ventilation, and roomier wash rooms. This car had black walnut interior with inlay or mirrors between windows. In another ten years, the length had increased to seventy feet with even more elaborate wood interior and luxurious plush seats. Pullman coaches offered privacy with curtained off sleeping quarters or wood paneled compartments, and separate toilets for men and women.

At first trains stopped for passengers to debark and eat or even to spend the night in a hotel, as depicted in stories of the Harvey Girls and Harvey Hotels. Time always pressed diners and the traveler had no control over what food was available. Some dining places—due to necessity for speed—served the poorly prepared rations. A few sites deliberately cheated travelers with slovenly hygiene and half-cooked food. Others, such as Harvey, maintained high standards. At a dining stop, passengers rushed off the train for a hasty meal, then rushed back on board when the gong sounded. Travelers were forced to gulp and run if they were lucky enough to beat the crowd and get served.
The advent of the dining car meant passengers could eat a proper meal on board, provided they had the cash. The first dining car, the Delmonico, came into service in 1868 on the Chicago & Alton line. Within ten years, they were on most lines. In 1878, a full meal cost seventy-five cents, at a time when a common laborer made less than that for an entire day’s work. Pullman dining cars marketed luxury. Fine tablecloths had PPCC woven into the cloth, for Pullman Palace Car Corporation. Uniformed servers delivered well-prepared food to tables set with fine china, crystal and silver. Some cars had fresh flowers in built-in silver vases at each table.

Shipping also changed, with railroad cars providing speed and more protection for cargo than horse or mule drawn wagons. For a fee, rail cars could be temporarily or permanently customized for specific products. In the Kansas, Texas & Pacific Railroad Museum in Dennison, Texas, books intended for railroad employees detail modifying and repair of shipping cars for a variety of purposes.

The Great Western Railway constructed a bridge across Niagara Falls to link the United States and Canada in 1855. It was not until 1882 that a bridge crossed the expanse of the Mississippi River at Memphis. Prior to that date, trains departing West from Memphis were ferried, one or two cars at a time, across the Mississippi.

In 1869 (this date really surprised me) the first refrigerated rail car appeared and soon allowed the transport of fresh produce and meats. One of the significant changes brought about by the railroad in the West was elimination of the great cattle drives to the Midwest or Northern markets. Centralized rail shipping allowed ranchers to ship from locations near home.

After the Civil War, train robberies occurred, particularly West of the Mississippi River. Former soldiers carried out many of these, some returning home and others looking for an easy income. Usually no one was injured, but watches, wallets, money and jewelry were collected from the passengers. Sometimes robbers forced passengers to drink liquor or sing as added aggravation.

Towns grew and flourished along the railroad. Those communities bypassed by the line often withered and disappeared. Competitions arose between communities to attract the railroad, often with bitter result. For those fortunate enough to live near a rail line, products never before seen became available. Railroads brought easier travel, dependable shipping, and availability of goods to change America forever.

For those interested in more details about rail travel, consult your local library for their selections or ask for one of the following:
The American Railroad Passenger Car; John H. White, Jr. 1978, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore MD 21218.
Hear The Wind Blow: A Pictorial Epic Of America In The Railroad Age; Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg, Grossett & Dunlap.
The Overland Limited, Lucius Beebe, Howell-North Books, Berkley CA. [This has a large section on Pullman cars.]
The Pacific Tourist: Adams & Bishop’s Illustrated Guide of Travel, The Atlantic To The Pacific; Frederick E. Shearer, Editor; Adams & Bishop, 1881.
Railroads Across America; Mike Del Vecchio, 1998, Lowe & Hold, Ann Arbor MI
The Railroad Passenger Car; August Mencken, Johns Hopkins Press. [This includes personal accounts by passengers over 150 years.}
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Visit Caroline Clemmons at her website at www.carolineclemmons.com for release information, excerpts, recipes, writing tips, and her contest.

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