Velvet cushions and gilt-framed mirrors. Feasts of antelope, trout, berries and Champagne. In 1869, a New York Times reporter experienced the ultimate in luxury—and he did so not in the parlor of a Gilded Age magnate, but on a train headed from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, California.
Just a few years before, the author would have had to rely on a bumpy stagecoach or a covered wagon to tackle a journey that took months. Now, he was gliding along the rails, passing by the varied scenery of the American West while dining, sleeping and relaxing.
The ride was “not only tolerable but comfortable, and not only comfortable but a perpetual delight,” he wrote. “At the end of our journey [we] found ourselves not only wholly free from fatigue, but completely rehabilitated in body and spirits. Were we very far from wrong if we voted the Pacific Railroad a success?”
The author was just one of the thousands of people who flocked to the Transcontinental Railroad beginning in 1869. The railroad, which stretched nearly 2,000 miles between Iowa, Nebraska and California, reduced travel time across the West from about six months by wagon or 25 days by stagecoach to just four days. And for the travelers who tried out the new transportation route, the Transcontinental Railroad represented both the height of modern technology and the tempting possibility of unrestricted travel.
Railroads Passed Through ‘Untouched’ Indigenous Land
The first passenger train on the line took 102 hours to travel from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, and a first-class ticket cost $134.50—the equivalent of about $2,700 today. It traveled what was known as the Overland Route, threading its way through prairies, mountains and deserts that had been nearly impassable just years before.
Passengers were impressed by the landscape’s beauty and seeming desolation. “For hundreds of miles we saw no other persons except now and then a station with a few hovels about it,” wrote Celia Cooley Graves, a Massachusetts woman who took the Overland Route to San Francisco in 1875.
At the time, the areas through which the train had been built were not yet home to large numbers of white settlers. In fact, millions of acres of the land the new railroad traversed had belonged to Indigenous people—but the U.S. Congress had granted the land to railroad companies.
For many Native nations, the railroads represented an unwelcome intrusion as they soon introduced a wave of white settlement. The trains provided supplies for those relocating from the East and allowed people with means to use the railroad instead of covered wagons.
First-Class Passenger Cars Offered Luxury
The journey west on railroads wasn’t only faster and easier than covered wagons, it could also be luxurious. First-class passengers reveled in what they saw as the comfort and modernity of the trains themselves. The train cars were “a constant delight,” wrote Henry T. Williams in an 1876 guide to railroad travel in the West. “One lives at home in the Palace Car with as much true enjoyment as in the home drawing-room.”
Williams was referring to Pullman palace cars, ornate train cars used for first-class passengers on the Union Pacific railroad. The cars, which included sleepers, dining cars and parlor cars, were lavishly decorated and full of sumptuous details like painstakingly carved wood and velvet hangings. Unlike the parlors of the Gilded Age’s rich and famous, palace cars were open to anyone who could pay the fee.
According to historian Lucius Morris Beebe, this had a lasting effect on American culture. “Before [Pullman’s] first palace cars few enough Americans had any least conception of what constituted true luxury,” he wrote; “three decades of first-hand contact with the manifestations of opulence available aboard the cars created a universal demand for rich living which had a profound effect on the American economy and national way of life which has not yet disappeared.”
The elaborate cars were specially influential for women travelers. At the time, traveling in public or doing so alone was considered highly unusual, and undesirable, for middle- and upper-class white women. But the Pullman cars helped calm the fears of those who did not like to see women stepping outside their “separate sphere” of home and family. According to historian Amy G. Richter, the train cars’ home-like setting, and the presence of women in the living-room-like cars, legitimized train travel for women and soothed those who feared that public life would endanger women and the moral order.
Second- And Third-Class Passengers Faced a Rougher Journey
But rich travelers were not the only people who rode the new trains. The railroad system borrowed from the ocean liners that were bringing unprecedented numbers of immigrants to United States shores and offered different fares for different classes of travelers. The poorest travelers could ride the rails for less money, but their accommodations were less glitzy than those of the richer passengers.
Second-class passengers had upholstered seats; third-class, or “emigrant” passengers, paid half of what the first-class passengers did but had to sit on benches instead of seats and bring their own food. "The overland journey is no fairy tale to those who read it from a way car!” wrote a journalist in 1878, noting crowded conditions and discomfort in the ordinary passenger cars.
Racism rode the rails, too. When British author Robert Louis Stevenson rode the train in 1879, he noted that there was an entire car just for Chinese passengers. Though up to 20,000 Chinese immigrants had built the railroad, they were treated with contempt at the time, reflecting racist attitudes and socially sanctioned discrimination.
Though Black people did ride as passengers, they were more often spotted working as laborers or porters. From the 1860s, all of the porters in Pullman cars were Black men. Though the job could be demeaning, and perpetuated stereotypes of black men as servile, anonymous workers at the beck and call of white passengers, it also helped build a middle class among black men.
Dangers of the Journey on the Transcontinental Railroad
The trains shortened the journey across the country, but they weren’t without risk. In 1872, for example, Walter Scott Fitz’s journey toward San Francisco was literally derailed by a massive, weeks-long snowstorm. The men on the train, including passengers, had to dig it out of huge snow drifts in Wyoming. The passengers were so dismayed by the constant stops that they held what Fitz called an “indignation meeting” to express their outrage at the travel conditions. The hellish trip involved derailing, begging people who lived near their frequent stops to make the passengers food, and waiting days to move.
“There was, of course, much suffering amongst second class passengers, and others who could not afford to buy supplies & who were cooped up in ordinary cars,” Fitz wrote. “How they managed to eat, live, & sleep with two people in each seat will always be a marvel to me….Such a mess of filth, foul air and dirty people I never want to see again. The railroad people were so lazy that they refused to clean the cars, and, on the few occasions of cleaning, the passengers did it themselves.” The four-day trip ended up taking three weeks.
Eventually, the entire United States ended up being crisscrossed by train tracks that predated modern highways. The railroad changed life forever, enabling white settlement in areas of the West once considered desolate and forbidding and making it possible for people to strike out on the frontier without the dangers of months of travel in the open air.
And for those who made the once unthinkable trip, the Transcontinental Railroad inspired awe and wondered at the vastness and beauty of the American West. “We gazed long and enchanted on that scene of sublimity and beauty,” wrote Thomas A. Weed of an 1871 view of the Sierra Nevada. “With what interest did we look out upon this land of the extreme west.”