Wednesday, December 11, 2013


     Let's take a trip on a train in 1870, just to see what it was like. Ads and handbills guaranteed a colorful experience. First, of course, we have to take a wagon or buggy ride to reach the train depot. The waiting room is lined with wooden benches, heated by a potbellied stove, and lighted  by oil lamps. Westward bound emigrants swarm the building and boarding platform, many still wearing costumes common in their home countries, and not knowing a word of English.
Inside the ticket office
     At the ticket window, we buy our tickets from the station agent who is in shirt sleeves, with fancy sleeve garters above each elbow and paper cuff protectors, like gauntlets to protect his real cuffs. On his head rests an eyeshade made of celluloid, a type of paper common in the day. A fat watch chain drapes across his middle and, as he hands us our tickets, he checks his watch against the station clock on the wall of the waiting room. But this is railroad time, not necessarily real time.
     There are more than seventy kinds of railroad time, all in use at once. Newspapers post train times but of course we know better than to rely on their schedules. What time our train arrives depends partly on what the clock in the last depot read, or what the railroad engineer's watch read when he left the station house. Some depots fire a gun at noon to help passengers know the right time to follow. Others drop a large ball from the top of a high mast to mark noontime. But who determines when noon is?
     To complicate matters, for each nine miles, east or west, our watches will lose or gain close to a minute. What a mess, simply trying to determine the time of day. Eventually, in 1883, railroads will adopt our present standard time system. Boundary lines between zones will be determined by railroad division points.
     A "highball" is an early railroad signal, a large red metal ball, hoisted on a pole in front of each station. All the way up, it is indeed a highball, telling the engineer to sail right on through. Down, it is a "lowball," meaning stop. The expression "to highball," meaning to get or keep going, is still in use.

     Our train stops at the next town, several miles down the line. If we're hungry, we might get off and seek a meal for 50 cents to a dollar at an attached restaurant. We might even be able to get a packed lunch basket for later for 50 cents. Railroad prices, of course. Food in cities is cheaper, but we're in a small town and don't have time to go hunting for restaurants as our train leaves soon. Yes, there goes the blast of the train's horn.
     Behind the smoke-belching engine is an open tender loaded with wood. In back of that is a U.S. Mail car, a railway post office, or a combined mail and baggage car. Then there are the passenger coaches, only three or four, as passenger trains in the 1870's aren't very long. The cars are wooden, except for the running gear, and 44 to 45 feet long, with open platforms on the ends and only a light iron rail to protect the passengers from falling into the swaying, clanking void between cars. Coaches are connected by a primitive link and pin coupling. To operate these, the switchman has to go between the cars and are frequently killed. In 1887, Pullman will introduce the enclosed vestibule.
     The seats in our coach are wooden, upholstered in red or green plush. A potbellied stove provides heat (steam heat piped in from the engine won't coming into being until the late 1880's). Coal-oil lamps provide light. Pintsch gaslights will come along in 1883, Pintsch gas being an oil product, and we'll have electric lights in the late eighties and nineties.
     Eating houses at railroads are notoriously bad, until Fred Harvey opens the first of his Harvey House restaurant in 1875 at Topeka, Kansas, on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line. If we want luxury, and a Hotel Train to our destination is available, we could go to the dining car and enjoy an out-of-this world meal, Turkey carpets, inlaid woodwork, fancy hangings, wall mirrors, snowy linens in the sleepers, mile-long menus, and prices to match. Hotel trains hauled mainly Pullmans and Silver Palace sleepers, about three each, two coaches and a baggage car.
     The train is frighteningly fast, traveling an amazing 25 mph, and we are gravely concerned about whether or not our human constitutions can endure such speed. Remember, we don't have automobiles or airplanes to use for comparison. We have horses, which can move about 15 miles an hour, wagons-- 2 to 1-1/2 miles an hour, steamboats-- perhaps 10 mph, and stagecoaches-- 5-6 mph. Why the train is a veritble speed demon likely to scorch the earth as it moves.
     My, I'm tired. Which way is the sleeper car?

Charlene Raddon likes to say that she began her fiction career in the third grade when she announced in Show & Tell that a baby sister she never had was killed by a black widow spider. She often penned stories featuring mistreated young girls whose mother accused of crimes her sister had actually committed. Those were mostly therapeutic exercises. Her first serious attempt at writing fiction came in 1980 when she woke from a vivid dream that compelled her to drag out a typewriter and begin writing. An early love for romance novels and the Wild West led her to choose the historical romance genre but she also writes contemporary romance. At present, she has five books published in paperback by Kensington Books (one under the pseudonym Rachel Summers), and the same five digitally published by Tirgearr Publishing. 

This blog was written with the help of the Foster-Harris book, The Look Of The Old West

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Alison E. Bruce said...

Very cool Char! The thought of those oil lamps and swaying cars has me feeling motion sickness. The stage would be worse though.

Ciara Gold said...

Very fun and informative post! I even learned a few new things and I love learning new things. Thanks for posting.

Susan Horsnell said...

Great post. I would have loved travel by train back then.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, ladies. Glad you enjoyed it. I don't know if I would have liked such a ride, but I'd have loved having the opportunity to see what it was like first hand. I took a train trip from Utah to Portland, OR once and it was uncomfortable and unforgettable and fun.

Lyn Horner said...

Great post, Charlene! Very informative.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Lyn

Julie Lence said...

Love the first photo--inside the ticket office. It really puts a person in the mood to travel on a 'old-west' train.