Saturday, March 26, 2011


Santa Fe Poster publicizes travel
via Atcheson, Topeka and
the Santa Fe Line

 Rail travel’s hypnotic rhythm, unique smells, and the sense of adventure stir the imagination.

I love trains and have fond memories of travel from Southern California to visit my grandmother in Oklahoma and back home several times between ages three to six. Later after my family had returned to Texas, I made two trips as a teen from Lubbock, Texas to California to visit relatives there. Wonderful memories reappear when I think of the Santa Fe Chief.

Do you have memories encompassing "riding the rails"? Did you have a sleeping compartment or sit up all the way as my family did?

No matter what your trip involved, a few basic facts can offer enlightenment to the advent of personal travel by train. Choosing which facts to relate and which photos to share is a problem. Because I love trains so much and have used them in my western historicals, I have a LOT of information. I've visited train museums, called them, and written. Most of the photos are black and white, and some of my favorites are too dark to scan and use, but I'll share some with you.

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.
The Rocket, 1829, could
pull 30 passengers 30 mph

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. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the provision for a nationwide rail line. Once the transcontinental rail lines were completed in 1869, America was opened to settlers from all over the world. At first used only for transporting goods, passenger travel soon developed.

In 1831 the DeWitt Clinton hauled 5 stagecoach bodies
at 25 miles per hour on the Mohawk and Hudson
Railroad from Albany to Schenectady--imagine the soot!

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. Still, it probably was no worse than riding in a wagon. At least 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.

1873 Steam locomotive

 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. Hmmm, sounds like the floor furnace of the house in which I grew up.  <G> 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.

               Sleeping Aboard!

1890 Pullman car

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. An early sleeping car had been built in 1838, the Chambersburg, for use between Chambersburg and Harrisburg, PA. 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.

Note curtains at side
to be pulled at night

In 1865, the first 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.

Jack Lemmon in berth with
girls, Tony Curtis looking up.

Pullman coaches offered privacy with curtained off sleeping quarters or wood paneled compartments, and separate toilets for men and women. At left is a scene from the hilarious movie "Some Like It Hot" which shows Jack Lemmon and friends in his berth while Tony Curtis looks on. Perhaps this isn't relavent to my post, but I like it. Hey, it does show life on a Pullman Palace Sleeping Car.


Caption under station name says
"Scoot for the train when gong sounds"

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 poorly prepared rations. A few sites deliberately cheated travelers with slovenly hygiene and half-cooked food.

Harvey Girls had
strict rules
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. When I rode with my mom, vendors also came through selling sandwiches and drinks for those who couldn't afford the dining car. Eating in the dining car was arranged by cars and the porter would tell you what your "gong" would be: one or two gongs. Very efficient.

Note eleaborate marquetry in sloped ceiling panels,
linens on tables, china plates, and uniformed server.

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. The meals were six courses and sumptuous. 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.

                   Special Cars

Backlist reprint
now available
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, such as the hero Drake Kincaid ordered in my book THE MOST UNSUITABLE WIFE, now available on Smashwords  at and Kindle at  

Backlist reprint
now available
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, as is used in my book THE MOST UNSUITABLE HUSBAND, also now available at Smashwords and Kindle at the same links as above.

Parker County Peaches Ready For Consumers
In 1869 the first refrigerated rail car appeared and soon allowed the transport of fresh produce and meats. In my area, thousands of peaches were shipped to Chicago on refrigerated cars. Consumers were able to receive many varieties of fresh produce not available in their area.

Drive to rail line instead
of trail drive to market
 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. This relates directly to those of us who write western historicals with ranchers and cowboys.

Soldiers riding Pullman Palace car
after ending strike in 1894
 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. At times, towns offered bonuses to the railroad officers if the rail line came through their town.

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. Moreover, railroads opened up the West for settlers.


  1. Caroline, That is an extensive blog! I rode on a train with my grandmother when I was about ten to visit her brother in Idaho. It was a only a part of a day's ride. But I loved the clack clack clack and the whole experience. I did some extensive research on trains for my book Doctor in Petticoats. They rode a train from once side of Oregon to the other.

    Paty Jager

  2. Caroline--Enjoyed all the info on trains and the railroad. I wish I could say I've ridden a train cross country but haven't. I've been on a tourist train in North Texas where they faked a train robbery, but that's it :-)

  3. Greag blog, Caroline. I love the train. I have traveled on one up and down the eastern corridor numerous times. Wish I could have gone across country. Hubby used to have great tales of going across when he was a kid. Once when I lived in SW VA, they sent a steam engine down the tracks from Bristol to Roanoke. I got to see that and would love to take a trip on one of those.


  4. Caroline, Great post with wonderful visuals. It's not possible to write of the Old West without researching and writing of the railroads. Finding maps and schedules of old lines is a real challenge but great fun. Thanks for adding to the lore.

  5. Caroline--The photos you shared are wonderful. I wonder why there's such mystery and romance attached to traveling by train? I've been on a train exactly three time in my life, and each experience was entirely different--and each was very satisfying in its own way.
    I've used trains in my stories,and always, always, something special happened while on the train.
    Thanks for showing and reming us. Celia

  6. I love old trains, Caroline! Great post! When my boys were young we used to travel to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania every year to visit the train museum and ride on an old steam engine train through the countryside. Needless to say, the boys loved it!

  7. Caroline,
    Love your blog about trains. :-) I've traveled by train once for fun and once for convenience. It's a great way to see the scenery. My Texas grandmother took the train across Texas often, and a couple of times to visit the National Parks when she was in her early 30s back in the early 1920s. She was quite the actress, in lots of plays here, and I have photos of her and her traveling partners, including her dh, with bubble blowers blowing bubbles in front of the train before they boarded. What fun they must have had!
    Thanks for the reminder!

  8. Wonderful blog, Caroline. I have wonderful memories of one long train ride in my childhood, and a much longer trip to Chicago as an adult - Pullman car included.

  9. Caroline,
    I love trains too! What a great blog you have written--you have done a ton of research, and it just is wonderful. I rode a train once when I was in kindergarten. We rode it from Duncan to Marlow, OK--just a short distance, but what a thrill for a class of kindergarten kids. I still remember that, because the cinders were blowing and my mom was worried they'd get on my dress. LOL

  10. Hi Caroline, I loved all the great info on trains. I first rode the rails with my family from Centralia WA to San Jose CA to visit my aunt. I thn took the train from Centralia WA to Phoenix AZ to visit a friend in college. I found it a mosy enjoyable mode of transportation.

  11. I love 'Some Like It Hot', too, Caroline. It was definitely a fun ride.

    My train riding experience has been in Europe and I absolutely adored riding the rails. In fact, my first trip was when our Swedish daughter took us up to Stockholm and we got to ride through the most beautiful country.

    We do have a train museum in Old Town Sacramento and that is a fun place to explore. Sometimes I think we screwed up taking away all the rails around my area. They have the small rapidrail but that just doesn't live up to those 'real trains.'

    Thanks for sharing all of the great info on this part of our history. My stories are set just before the trains got out here to the west or I'd be using them, too.

  12. How very interesting! The part about the robbers and the drinking is very funny, but I bet it wasn't at the time. I've been on a few trains, but they were between Germany and France when I would go to see my family. I remember being very scared because of the way the train car swayed on the tracks. I just knew it was going to fall over. Today, I ride the train between Fort Worth and Dallas and love it!

  13. Caroline -- I love trains and your blog is wonderful. I've always wanted to travel by train -- with a sleeping car. My mother used to tell me about how she and her sisters traveled by train all the time when touring in the late 30s, 40s, and early 50s...the dining cars, the Pullmans, running to catch a train with all their luggage and insruments,etc. And, as you know, another member of my family worked for a particular railroad in the 19th century (but that's for another blog). :)

    Thanks for your research and wonderful post.


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