Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Train Travel in 19th century America-Luxury or merely efficient?

by | May 7, 2012 | 17 comments

I love traveling by train. The summer after 9/11 we had planned to go to Disney World but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to board an airplane yet so we decided to go by train rather than disappoint our daughter. When we boarded a porter ushered us to the sleeping car we had booked and informed us that he was at our disposal for the remainder of the trip, What a luxury!

He took our meal orders for dining in the dining cars, showed us around our compact but efficient single cell quarters, turned our seats into beds at night, took care of our luggage and basically made our trip lovely.  At the time my daughter was only eight and I was a little worried how she’d do on the overnight trip but she, and we, loved it.

Dining in the dining car was a gastronomical treat, watching movies on the tiniest screen was a novelty, taking showers in about a foot-worth of space was a wonder of  engineering, and watching the world whirr by in a blur felt adventuresome. We all agreed that, unlike when we traveled by plane, our vacation began the moment we stepped on the train and, unlike the plane, we felt rested and downright leisurely during our travel. We arrived a full hour late, but no matter. Our Disney tram was dutifully waiting for us and we looked forward to an equally splendid return trip.

In one of my manuscripts, my hero and heroine embark on a trip from Saratoga Springs to St. Louis, MO aboard a Pullman sleeper car, a trip of over two days. You have to be careful reading train schedules during this time since the whole concept of standardized time zones was just being implemented. Advertisement to the contrary, train travel wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, but it was much preferable to what it replaced, stage coach travel.

Here’s some snippets on the subject from Emily Faithful’s journal, a British woman who visited America three separate times and viewed the complications of train travel during the era from an experienced point of view.

A great deal has been written about the luxury of American railroad travelling.  It did not strike me as luxurious.  It is supposed that these hotel cars accompany each train, and that you have only to step in from your saloon carriage and breakfast and dine whenever you please while continuing your journey.  When you do strike this institution, I admit it is a boon to the weary traveller doomed to such long distances; but as far as my own experience goes, hotel cars, like angel’s visits, are few and far between, and meals are arranged at hours which make them practically useless.  For instance, en route for Denver, dinner was offered me at half-past twelve, an hour after I left Chicago, where I had enjoyed an excellent ten o’clock breakfast at the Palmer House.

Emily was astounded there was no segregation between the sexes in the sleeping car, but she was subsequently found it wasn’t so bad after  all. She goes on to write: At first I rebelled altogether against the sleeping-car institution, not so much from modesty, I confess, as  from a nervous dread of asthma in these narrow, closed-up sections.  Latterly, however, I became quite reconciled to it; and indeed, the long journeys across the plains and to the South would be impossible without the rest it affords, and at last I learned to slumber as peacefully in a Pullman sleeper as in an ordinary bed, and almost to prefer night to day journeys.  Every night the linen sheets and pillow-slips are changed, and one of the heaviest expenses of a sleeping-car is the washing bill.  The Wagner Company, I am told, pays 30,000 dollars a year, and the Pullman bill for washing is still heavier.  The conductors and porters in these drawing-room and sleeping-cars are some of the most polite men to be found in the whole of America; the former are most intelligent, and take infinite pains to give the stranger any information respecting the route, pointing out places of interest with all the pride of ownership derived from their possession of the road.

I find I agree with Emily when it comes to the porters and conductors. You can read more about her American experiences at http://gerald-massey.org.uk/faithfull/c_america_2.htm

By the 1870’s, railroads were giving rise to tourism. Instead of just being a “modern” solution to the problem of how to move goods efficiently, the idea of passenger as tourist was taking hold.

Time-table and fare schedules from the era read like travel brochures, enticing riders to see the sights along the rail lines. But, considering a month’s wages were around $30-60 for most jobs, train travel was not cheap. A first class limited ticket from Kansas City, Mo to San Francisco was $106 while an emigrant class ticket was $49.  Nonetheless, travel for the purpose of sightseeing was on the rise and actively promoted.

In an article titled “California” from Harper’s New Weekly, 1872, Vol. 44 the author, Charles Nordoff, proclaims the benefits of taking the “tourist route” to San Francisco.

Certainly in no part of the continent is pleasure-traveling so exquisite and unalloyed as pleasure in California. Not only are the sights grand, wonderful, and surprising in the highest degree, but the climate is exhilarating and favorable to an active life…and the journey by rail from New York to San Francisco, which costs no more than the steamer fare to London, and is shorter than a voyage across the Atlantic, is in itself delightful as well as instructive. 

The regular route runs by way of Philadelphia and Pittsburg to Chicago—this is called the Pittsburg and Fort Wayne route—thence to Omaha, either by the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, the Chicago and Northwestern, or the Chicago and Rock Island. At Omaha you take the Union Pacific road to Ogden, and thence the Central Pacific to San Francisco. If you wish to see Colorado on your way out, you may go also from Chicago to Denver, over the Chicago, Burlington, and Missouri and Kansas Pacific roads…When you are done you pass from Denver to Cheyenne by a road which is 195 miles long, which makes closed connection with the Pacific or overland trains.  You are to understand that all these lines are connected; that, now that the great bridge at Omaha is complete, you might, if you desired it enough to charter a car, go through without change of cars; that you may buy your through-ticket in New York; and that the traveling time from ocean to ocean is seven days. 

In practice the tourist bound to California will do well to stop two days in Chicago, and one day in Salt Lake City, in which case he would get to San Francisco in ten days, and with surprisingly little fatigue, and he will have seen several very remarkable sights on the way.”

He goes on to cite the benefits of slower train speeds for relaxing travel and suggests, as our family found, that traveling by train is part of the adventure. “But at twenty-two miles per hour travel by rail is a different affair; and having unpacked your books and unstrapped your wraps in your Pullman or Central Pacific palace car, you may pursue all the sedentary avocations and amusements of a parlor at home; and as your housekeeping is done—and admirably done—for you by alert and experienced servants, as you may lie down at full length or sit up, sleep or wake, at your choice, as your dinner is sure to be abundant, very tolerably cooked, and not hurried, as you are pretty sure to make acquaintances on the car and as the country in which you pass is strange and abounds in curious and interesting sights, you will soon fall into the ways of the voyage and if you are a tired business man, or a wearied housekeeper, your careless ease will be much at rest as certainly most busy and overworked Americans know how to enjoy.”

Certainly passengers in second class or emigrant class may not have had it so pleasant as the woman who reported eighteen burn holes in her dress from the smokestack cinders of the train would attest, but for those who could afford it, train travel could be a wonderful way to see the sights.

In the late 1800’s train travel was as new and exciting as the West it connected. Today you can enjoy scenic train rides via Amtrak or Canadian Rail (see http://www.vacationsbyrail.com/)  or perhaps a two day excursion on the Orient Express from London to Venice is more to your liking as it was for a friend of mine. These are on my “bucket list”. How about you?

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press.


  1. Kirsten

    Hi Anne,

    Your trip to Disney World sounds like so much fun, and much more relaxing than the whirlwind airplane ride. There’s just something so romantic about a train, and taking a longer train ride is definitely on my bucket list. Thanks for all great information.

    • Anne Carrole

      It was fun Kirsten. We hope to do it again sometime. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Autumn Jordon

    What an interesting blog. I’ve been on one train ride from Scranton to twenty miles north and back. It was in July and older train, so no AC. DH & I loved it, the kids not so much. It was a step back in history.

    I’d love to take a train trip across country. I’m sure we’d see things you wouldn’t see from the interstates.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks Autumn for stopping by. If you could enjoy a train ride without AC, I know you would enjoy some more train adventures. 🙂

  3. Christine Clemetson

    So interesting Anne! Loved the blog post. We had been thinking about taking a train–so cool! Thanks for sharing!


    • Anne Carrole

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Christine. Let me know if you ever do go. I’d love to hear about it.

  4. Angelyn

    Fantastic post. Most of my knowledge about nineteenth century train travel comes from the Pennsylvania Railroad and the magnates that used it, having their own cars that were indeed like moving palaces. Thanks for sharing this information.

    • Anne Carrole

      Thanks so much for stopping by Angelyn. Am sure those magnates traveled in style–from private railroad cars back then to private jets now.

  5. Tanya Hanson

    Hi Anne, great blog. I love taking the 2 1/2 hour train ride to my daughters house. (There’s a six month old grandbaby there LOL) When she and her brother were little, we took an overnight train ride up the coast to Portland ORE. The scenery was glorious and the sleeping car was just like a movie!

    • Anne Carrole

      You wouldn’t think so but I loved sleeping on the train.

      • Anne Carrole

        Oh, and thanks for stopping by Tanya!:)

  6. Kaki Warner

    Great post, Anne. I’ve been doing research on train travel in 1870 and Pullman Sleepers. What struck me was that all the porters were called George, in deference to their employer, George Pullman (the cars were actually owned by Pullman, not the rail lines, and were called Pullman Palace Cars.) Interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Anna Kathryn Lanier

    Hi, Anne. Great blog. When I was about 12 or 14, my family took the train from Houston, TX to New Orleans, LA. It took us 17 hours. Now, if you look at a map, you’ll wonder why, since by car it’s only a 6 hour trip. Well….there was a derailment ahead of us and they diverted our train to a track that had not been used in years. Literally, someone was walking in front of the train to look for bad rail spots. When they found one, we had to back up and go another way. That happened once. By the time we rolled into New Orleans, the dining car was empty of everything, including cheese sandwiches and the toilets…well, we won’t go there. I don’t recall the return train trip, so it must have gone just fine! But even given the long trip, it was fun and I always wanted to take me girls on a train trip.

    • Anne Carrole

      Wow, that was a little bit more adventure than I was looking for Anna! But bet some of those same problems occurred in the 19th century. At least it was memorable-lol. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. Anne Carrole

    Hi Kaki, thanks for stopping by. Hah! I didn’t know that about the porters being called George. What a fascinating detail!

  9. Ally Broadfield

    This is a lovely post. During college, I regularly took the train from Washington, D.C. to Massachusetts to visit my sister. However, my most memorable train trip was on the night train from Leningrad to Moscow in the Soviet Union during a high school trip in 1989. Our room was cozy and comfortable enough, but there was no food service and the bathroom was a hole in the bottom of a train car that faced onto the tracks. Really. It did have foot rests on either side, but there was something about looking down onto the tracks from the rapidly moving train that made me pass on using the facilities.

  10. Lacey Falcone

    Great post – I have so many thoughts, I’m not really sure where to start…

    Traveling in luxury – When they first started building airplanes for passengers, they tried to incorporate some of the luxuries that were found in train travel, but they couldn’t build a plane big enough – and make it cost-effective too.

    I remember when I was young, and people actually dressed up to take a plane flight…I’m sure a throw-back to the idea of traveling on trains, and that your vacations actually started when you boarded. Now, most people just find a comfortable pair of sweats or jeans to travel in.

    Living in Europe now, and in Japan before – it’s amazing how one of their first thoughts is to take the train…and it’s one of our last thoughts. The bullet trains are actually quite nice….

    Thanks for the interesting post!



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