Riding the first transcontinental railroad (early 1870s)

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MARC Rider

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Here's a great article from 1977 that was published in American Heritage.

The Transcontinental Railroad | AMERICAN HERITAGE

A few takeaway points:

  • You not only had to change in Chicago, you also had to change in Omaha, and also in Ogden.
  • Sleeper fare was $100 [$2,055 in todays money] ($25 for first class fare, $4 a day to ride the Pullman Palace cars.); second class (padded seats) was $75 [$1,540 in todays money] , "emigrant fare" (board seats) was $40 [822 in today's money] The article wasn't clear, but I think these were just fares from Omaha.
  • The trip took 4-7 days, average speed was about 20 mph. (which was twice as fast as the fastest stagecoach.)
  • Although Pullman introduced a diner in 1870 for the sleeper passengers, Union Pacific ran it on only 1 train a week. Well into the 1880s most passengers were fed at meal stops.
  • This involved everyone piling off the train and rushing to gulp down food that (with some exception) was pretty bad. This all had to be done within 30 minutes, or you'd risk being stranded somewhere in the middle of the Wild West.

from the article:

Judging from comments of travelers, the food varied from wretched to middling fair. The first dining stop out of Omaha was Grand Island. “Ill cooked and poorly served,” was one passenger’s blunt comment. “We found the quality on the whole bad,” said William Robertson of Scotland, “and all three meals, breakfast, dinner and supper, were almost identical, viz., tea, buffalo steaks, antelope chops, sweet potatoes, and boiled Indian corn, with hoe cakes and syrup ad nauseam .” New Yorker Susan Coolidge also complained about the sameness of diet. “It was necessary to look at one’s watch to tell whether it was breakfast, dinner or supper that we were eating, these meals presenting invariably the same salient features of beefsteak, fried eggs, fried potato.” She was generous enough to compliment the chef at Sidney, Nebraska, for serving “cubes of fried mush which diversified a breakfast of unusual excellence.” Harvey Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, described the Sidney breakfast station as a crude structure of boards and canvas. “Here the passengers were replenished with an excellent breakfast—a chicken stew, as they supposed, but which, as they were afterward informed, consisted of prairie-dogs—a new variety of chickens, without feathers. This information created an unpleasant sensation in sundry delicate stomachs.”
I'm waiting for Amtrak to start serving prairie dog flex meals.
  • You had to pay for the food. Meals cost $1 [$20.55 in todays money], though in California, the Central Pacific charged 75 cents if you paid in silver.
  • After a day or two with no showers and lots of dust and smoke, everybody got pretty grimy. One can only imagine how these travelers of the Victorian era, especially the ones in first class, felt about that. If you're planning to build a time machine to go back and take a ride, it would probably be a good idea to stock up on Vicks Vap-O-Rub. :)
  • Trains could be severely delayed by weather and accidents.

Not sure I'd want to hop into a time machine and try it, although the description of the sleeping cars suggested that they were pretty comfortable. It might have been nice to get to see the West before it got all messed up by "civilization."
 
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Anderson

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I'm not sure I would have enjoyed being delayed by a migrating buffalo herd any more than I enjoy it when it's a grade crossing incident...

...but it would certainly be novel!
 

Bembidion

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Meriden, CT
Here's a great article from 1977 that was published in American Heritage.

The Transcontinental Railroad | AMERICAN HERITAGE

A few takeaway points:

  • You not only had to change in Chicago, you also had to change in Omaha, and also in Ogden.
  • Sleeper fare was $100 [$2,055 in todays money] ($25 for first class fare, $4 a day to ride the Pullman Palace cars.); second class (padded seats) was $75 [$1,540 in todays money] , "emigrant fare" (board seats) was $40 [822 in today's money] The article wasn't clear, but I think these were just fares from Omaha.
  • The trip took 4-7 days, average speed was about 20 mph. (which was twice as fast as the fastest stagecoach.)
  • Although Pullman introduced a diner in 1870 for the sleeper passengers, Union Pacific ran it on only 1 train a week. Well into the 1880s most passengers were fed at meal stops.
  • This involved everyone piling off the train and rushing to gulp down food that (with some exception) was pretty bad. This all had to be done within 30 minutes, or you'd risk being stranded somewhere in the middle of the Wild West.

from the article:



I'm waiting for Amtrak to start serving prairie dog flex meals.
  • You had to pay for the food. Meals cost $1 [$20.55 in todays money], though in California, the Central Pacific charged 75 cents if you paid in silver.
  • After a day or two with no showers and lots of dust and smoke, everybody got pretty grimy. One can only imagine how these travelers of the Victorian era, especially the ones in first class, felt about that. If you're planning to build a time machine to go back and take a ride, it would probably be a good idea to stock up on Vicks Vap-O-Rub. :)
  • Trains could be severely delayed by weather and accidents.

Not sure I'd want to hop into a time machine and try it, although the description of the sleeping cars suggested that they were pretty comfortable. It might have been nice to get to see the West before it got all messed up by "civilization."
Fred Harvey changed all that for passengers on Santa Fe. He offered a first rate dining experience and had food orders telegraphed ahead so that dining time was used efficiently.
 
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Ziv

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$1 a meal in the 1870's?! Forget about mining for gold, I want to open a dining room along the Union Pacific RR!
Downside is that it sounds like the UP only ran one train a week for years. So there is that.
A lot of that route is I-80 now, or close to it. It is still a harsh but beautiful trip.
 
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ehbowen

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$1 a meal in the 1870's?! Forget about mining for gold, I want to open a dining room along the Union Pacific RR!
Downside is that it sounds like the UP only ran one train a week for years. So there is that.
A lot of that route is I-80 now, or close to it. It is still a harsh but beautiful trip.

There was a daily passenger express, but the "Hotel Express" featuring fancier equipment only ran once or twice a week as a second section to the normal passenger express.
 

west point

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Ships are not always safe in port. Look what happened to the French fleet when Churchill ordered it destroyed !
 

Ziv

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That makes a lot more sense! Thanks for the clarification. More trains means more people paying me a $1 a meal. Cowboys got around $25 a month (plus food and bunk) right after the war and $30 a month in the 1870's, so a dollar was a days wages for many.

There was a daily passenger express, but the "Hotel Express" featuring fancier equipment only ran once or twice a week as a second section to the normal passenger express.
 
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ehbowen

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That makes a lot more sense! Thanks for the clarification. More trains means more people paying me a $1 a meal. Cowboys got around $25 a month (plus food and bunk) right after the war and $30 a month in the 1870's, so a dollar was a days wages for many.
When I get the time machine working at long last I'll be happy to help you corner the market on food service along the You Pay...but only if you pledge to model your business after Fred Harvey!
 
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