WHY TAKE A TRAIN?
Sophie Tucker once said, "I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better." Well, in my many travels I've been comfortable and I've been uncomfortable. Believe me, comfortable is better. A lot better. And that's why I take the train.
There are a lot of societal and environmental reasons for being pro-rail, and we'll talk about those in another chapter. But for long-distance travel, the train is the only civilized option left for us. You think not? Just consider the other choices.
See America Through a Windshield?
Forget it. Droning great distances across the country by car or — I shudder at the very thought — by bus is, for the most part, a waste of time. If you're the driver, it's tiring. If you're a passenger, it's boring. Either way, it's confining and uncomfortable.
In Charles Kuralt's delightful book, On the Road with Charles Kuralt, he said, "Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country coast-to-coast without seeing anything." Kuralt's exaggeration can be forgiven, but you won't come close to seeing much of the real America until you leave the interstate. When we build superhighways in this country, we level everything, carving swaths hundreds of yards wide across the land from horizon to horizon. When we're through, there's nothing much left to see. The only conceivable reason for traveling long distances by car is to save money; that, I'll argue, is only possible when costs are divided among a number of passengers.
Flying Really Is for the Birds
Perhaps it's because of deregulation. Maybe it's just the shifting economic conditions that have caused the airlines to cram more people into fewer flights. And all the increased security is certainly a hassle. Whatever the reason, flying is no longer a pleasurable experience for the ordinary traveler.
Unless you have the money or enough frequent-flier miles to fly first-class, you're forced to spend hours crammed into a narrow seat with virtually no legroom. Once, on a flight to Los Angeles, I sat next to a rather large woman. She was only moderately overweight, but the seats were so narrow I was forced to eat my meal left-handed. Add jet lag into the mix, and a cross-country trip is exhausting. A longer flight — Honolulu to Paris, for instance — often involves back-to-back red-eye flights, an ordeal from which it takes two or three days to recover. Everyone has horror stories about the routine discomforts and inconveniences of flying; yet we have come to tolerate these conditions as an acceptable trade-off for getting somewhere quickly.
Flying isn't all bad, of course. It's quite true that occasionally — if you are flying during daylight hours, if you can arrange a window seat, and if there is no cloud cover — you can see some pretty spectacular things from a jetliner. Once on a flight out of Fort Myers, Florida, I had a ringside seat for a space shuttle launch. No doubt about it: that really was something to see from 25,000 feet.
But how exciting is it when the captain says, "That city off to the left of us is Wichita, Kansas"? Assuming you have a window seat on the left side, Wichita looks a lot like Topeka ... or Boise, Duluth, or Portland (Oregon or Maine, take your pick). The fact is, you really can't see much of America from a plane.
Finally, the technology of modern aviation is incomprehensible to most people. Instead of entering through that long Jetway, have you ever boarded a Boeing 747 from ground level? It's an unnerving experience. You stand there on the tarmac, looking up at that monstrous machine. You just know it will not — cannot possibly — fly! Only blind faith gets you aboard. I know just one thing for certain about a plane trip: the sooner we land, the better I like it.
A Simple Attitude Adjustment
Long-distance train travel isn't the best choice for everyone on every occasion. If you have to get somewhere fast, an airplane is admittedly the only practical answer. And some people just can't gear down sufficiently to enjoy the train, whether they're really in a hurry or not.
For most people, though, all it takes to enjoy a long-distance train trip is a simple attitude adjustment before starting out. Just remember that the train is part of your whole vacation experience; the plane is nothing more than the fastest way to get there.
On the Coast Starlight, en route from Los Angeles to Seattle, you roll almost silently through the Cascade Mountains of Oregon on a single track cut through the wilderness. (You'll notice that long-distance trains are traditionally given names as well as numbers.) Heading east out of Seattle on the Empire Builder, you fall asleep in the Cascades and wake up the next morning in the Rockies as the train skirts Glacier National Park. The east-bound Lake Shore Limited takes you along the banks of Lake Erie on your left and the original Erie Canal on your right; and the Adirondack follows the Hudson River into New York City. If you want to gaze on some of the prettiest country views anywhere, ride the Cardinal across the Blue Ridge Mountains from Virginia into Kentucky.
Just out of El Paso on the Sunset Limited, you pass a teenage boy sitting bareback on his horse and wonder if he's as curious about you as you are about him. From the California Zephyr, just west of Burlington, Iowa, you see a man and a woman sitting with their arms around each other on a tractor in a field of corn that stretches to the horizon. On the City of New Orleans, you pass a man putting tar paper on the roof of a shed and, as he straightens and stares, you can tell that his back hurts. As you roll slowly through Palatka, Florida, on the Silver Meteor, you see an elderly woman tending a small vegetable garden in her backyard. Her tomatoes are ripe. Twenty-four hours on a train will yield not only a thousand mental snapshots of America and its people but also the time to savor them.
More than anything, your train ride should be relaxing. That doesn't come automatically to everyone, so you may have to work a bit at making that mental adjustment. Some people just can't manage it. My sister once talked her husband into taking the train from Denver to San Francisco. He enjoyed the spectacular scenery as they wound their way through the Rockies west of Denver; but somewhere in Nevada the next morning, as they were rolling along beside a highway, he suddenly sat straight up in his seat. "Good God! Those cars are moving faster than we are! They'll get there before we do!" Not true, of course, and he never could explain why that should matter anyway, but he was agitated and impatient for the rest of the trip.
Why travel by train? Because compared to the alternatives, it's comfortable, relaxing, and civilized. Most of all, it will broaden and elevate your appreciation and understanding of our country and its people. That's the United States of America out there, passing by right outside your living room window.CHAPTER 2
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Railroads have been around for a long time. As far back as the 16th century, they were used to haul coal out of mines in England and Wales. Really, those were hardly what we would call railroads — just horses and mules pulling wagons along crude tracks — but they had the same fundamental advantage that modern railroads offer. By reducing friction, more weight could be moved with less energy. The people who ran those coal mines understood the concept in even simpler terms: the easier it was for a horse to pull one of their carts, the more coal they could put into it.
The potential of steam power had been understood for a long time; in fact, steam engines had been used for years to pump water out of those same coal mines. The big breakthrough came about 1803 when Richard Trevithick, an English mining engineer, figured out how to mount a steam engine on a movable platform. Within a few years, the very first steam locomotives were being used to haul coal from mines to seaports, where it was shipped all over the world. In 1825, the first passenger rail service began, and word of this new means of transportation started spreading beyond England's shores. It found fertile ground in America.
A Mobile Society Is Created
America's first railroad was the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), which started service in 1830 and immediately captured the imagination of the country. That's hardly surprising. Up to that time, no American had ever traveled faster than a horse could run. Almost overnight, ordinary people were traveling for greater distances at higher speeds than had ever been possible. Other railroads followed on the heels of the B&O.
For the average American in the early 19th century, it all took some getting used to. Individual families and entire communities had always been pretty much self-sufficient. The railroads changed all that in a matter of a few years, first by linking towns, then states, and finally the entire continent. Suddenly Americans had mobility; almost anyone could go almost anywhere. It's an interesting paradox that while railroads were bringing Americans together as one people, they also made it possible for the country itself to expand.
By the mid-19th century, people were heading west by the thousands, chasing after the gold that was discovered in California in 1848 or just looking for some land of their own. But however efficiently the railroads may have linked the North, South, and East, they could only take people halfway into the great American West — just as far as Omaha, Nebraska.
The Biggest Construction Project Ever
There had been talk about extending the railroad to the West Coast for some time, but the men who proposed it were largely written off as fools. It was indeed a huge, daunting project, arguably one of the largest and most ambitious engineering projects ever attempted. Furthermore, not everyone thought California was the promised land, even if the transcontinental railroad did prove feasible. Probably the best-known naysayer of the time was Daniel Webster, who described the West as a "region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs."
Nevertheless, President Abraham Lincoln decided to move ahead with the transcontinental railroad and signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862. Although foresight and vision were no doubt involved, the main reason for the decision was a very real concern that California, which had become our 31st state in 1850, would use the Civil War as an excuse to leave the Union and become a separate nation. Then, too, with the Gold Rush in full swing, there was always the threat of attack by a foreign power. Without a transcontinental railroad, the United States could never get troops or supplies to California in time to deal with that potential problem.
When the work finally started, it was certainly in earnest — in spite of the fact that the Civil War had begun. The Union Pacific Railroad headed west from Omaha, Nebraska, while the Central Pacific (CP) Railroad began in Sacramento, California, and went east. The CP had problems from the outset. Most of the able-bodied workers were busily mining gold, and those who were recruited proved to be largely unreliable. Finally, as a desperate last resort, the railroad hired Chinese laborers. As it turned out, they were much better workers. During the six or more years of construction, the Central Pacific used a total of 10,000 workers, of which 90 percent were Chinese.
It was tough, dangerous work over terribly difficult terrain. In some areas, laborers were suspended from cliffs by ropes in order to hack the roadbed out of the mountainside. While digging the Summit Tunnel in the Sierras, work crews had to blast through 1,600 feet of granite so hard that in spots they were able to progress just one foot a day. A new explosive, nitroglycerin, speeded the work, but in its early form it was extremely unstable, which meant it was always dangerous and frequently fatal. Nevertheless, work on the tunnel went on from both ends and, when the crews finally met, the two holes were only a few inches off. Still, after five years of prodigious effort, the Central Pacific crews had laid only 100 miles of track.
Meanwhile, the Union Pacific didn't have the awful terrain to deal with and was making much faster progress heading west across the Great Plains. There were still problems aplenty, however, such as finding wood from which to fashion cross ties, since there were no trees on the Nebraska prairie. To fill this obvious need, the railroad contracted with men called tie hacks to cut ties from trees in the western mountains and haul them eastward to meet the railroad.
The Union Pacific paid its railroad workers $1 per day, and all of them lived in railcars that followed them as track was laid. Many were immigrants of Irish and German descent, and many had served in the Civil War. As the railroad moved farther west, it entered Sioux territory. The Indians had largely ignored the occasional wagon train, but this development was clearly a serious threat to their way of life. Attacks became more frequent and progress slowed as the ex-soldiers were diverted into armed units assigned to protect the remaining work crews. Through it all, fueled by relatively high wages and visions of huge profits, the work went on at a feverish pace. In fact, one Union Pacific crew laid just a little more than 10 miles of track in one day — an astonishing feat considering the backbreaking nature of the work and the lack of any kind of power equipment.
The transcontinental linkup finally occurred on May 10, 1869, when the two railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah. Several hundred people gathered at the site for the event, which included prayers and lots of speeches by many dignitaries. Several ceremonial "last spikes" were used in the official dedication, including a gold one, but the actual last spike was an ordinary iron one. It was driven into place by one of the railroad workers whose name, as far as I can tell, has long since been lost to history.
One other item of interest to those of us who are trivia buffs: America's transcontinental railroad and another monumental feat of engineering, the Suez Canal, were both completed in 1869, a coincidence that gave Jules Verne the idea for Around the World in 80 Days.
The Stream Becomes a Flood
It's hard for us to imagine the impact on the country when the transcontinental railroad was finally opened. It had taken a full six months to reach California or Oregon by wagon train from one of the several jump-off points in the Midwest, and one out of every ten pioneers died during the crossing. Then, almost literally overnight, you could travel in relative safety and comfort all the way from New York City to Sacramento in just under a week. And people started to do so by the thousands.
If the western movement of people was a stream, then the mail they sent and received soon became a flood. Before the transcontinental link, mail was either carried by stagecoach or around South America by sailing ship, which took several months. Suddenly trains had the capacity to carry large quantities of mail at low cost and at unheard of speed: from the Atlantic to the Pacific in less than a week. Letters and packages were sorted en route in mail cars. Speed was everything. Bags of mail were thrown from trains or snatched from trackside poles as trains sped through small towns all across America. There was glamour attached to speedy mail service, and the railroads gave it top priority. Trains brought news for the masses, too — more of it and faster than ever before. Newspapers printed in major cities were being delivered by train to subscribers in small town America within hours.
America Starts Moving by Rail
By 1865, when the Civil War ended, there were some 30,000 miles of track in the country. During the next 25 years, steel rails spread out all over America until, by 1890, there were well over 200,000 miles of track running from sea to shining sea.
The federal government encouraged the spread of the railroads by giving them land — not just rights-of-way on which to lay their tracks but land adjacent to the tracks too, which totaled millions upon millions of acres. The railroads sold this land at very low prices, actually giving it away in some cases. Men called colonization agents were hired by the railroads to recruit families from the industrial East Coast. Many railroads actually operated what were called immigrant trains — which carried entire families, including their personal belongings and even their livestock — from the eastern United States into the newly opened areas. Thousands of people took advantage of this new opportunity, and as word spread across the Atlantic, European immigrants joined the flood of new settlers.