In my latest release, BRIDE OF THE HIGH COUNTRY, I had to get my main characters from NY to Heartbreak Creek, CO. Since the Transcontinental had been finished the previous year (1869), I picked the train. Oops.
Even though train travel had been available in the east for three decades, cross-country hauls were rare. Amenities, rarer. No bathrooms, for instance. But that was OK since the trains had to stop every twenty miles to fill the tenders with water. If the passengers were lucky, there might be an outhouse beside the tracks. Or if they had a dime, they could purchase a box lunch from an enterprising local, or enjoy a hot meal of beans, bacon and stale biscuit. Then back on the train and the hard bench for another lurching, bouncing twenty miles. YIPEE.
But, of course, my characters were rich, so they traveled in style in a Pullman Palace Car, which was as plush as a gamblers’ steamboat, complete with velvet couches, carpet and wooden inlay around the windows. There was even a washroom in every four-berth car, which emptied directly onto the tracks (and you thought it was hunters who decimated the buffalo—HA!) Also included on the luxury runs were a parlor car and dining car, which served mostly-edible meals when your plate wasn’t sliding into your lap as the train clickety-clacked along.
Ah, the beautiful scenery and fresh air—if only you could see through the soot-streaked windows or breathe through the billowing smoke wafting back from the locomotive. Still, it was faster than a three-month trip by wagon. Plus, you got to shoot at stuff as you careened along at ten, twenty, or—OMG—even thirty miles an hour. What a treat!
FACT: Each Pullman Car was owned and operated by the Pullman Company, and was serviced by a white-jacketed Negro man universally named “George” in deference to his employer, George Pullman.
The West would have been a vastly different place without the influence of the railroads. For one thing, they offered incentives for people to settle along the right-of-ways, thereby creating permanent customers for the goods they were hauling. They also carved routes through impossible country, built thousands of trestles, bridges, and culverts, or—since anything steeper than a 3% grade was prohibitive in fuel, construction, maintenance, and equipment costs—they laid tracks miles out of the way to avoid them, thus opening up even more country.
FACT: In constructing the Transcontinental, Irish immigrants laid tracks west from Nebraska, while Chinese workers came east out of Sacramento—and they arrived at the EXACT SAME SPOT at Promontory Summit! Amazing!
FACT: The standard width between rails was determined by the Romans when they built stone roads in England. 4’ 8.5” was the width between the wheels of a two-horse chariot. Over time, those wheels wore such deep grooves into the stone that later wagon-makers had to space their wheels to fit them. Then somebody figured wheels roll easier metal-on-metal, so they laid down metal-capped wooden rails, put flanged, metal-treaded wheels on their horse-drawn wagons, and soon coal was rolling out of Newcastle at record rates. And all because of the width of two horses’ asses pulling an old Roman chariot. Who knew?
So there you have it. More than you ever wanted to know about the joys and hazards of riding the rails west. Have you ever taken a cross-country train trip or slept in a Pullman? Would you do it again?
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