C 2013 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette Winter 2013 issue
Picture packing a trunk with your personal belongings and toiletries, heaving it into the back of a wagon pulled by horses, and making the rather bumpy and precarious trip to the nearest train depot. There, after purchasing a ticket to your destination, you and your trunk waited—sometimes minutes, sometimes hours, or perhaps an entire day—to catch sight of that large steam locomotive arriving to take you to a far away land. Your trunk was loaded into the baggage car as you stepped into the long corridor of a passenger car with plush but small seats facing one another. Your seatmates would become virtual room mates for the trip, struggling alongside you to make ample foot room and maintain some sort of polite conversation. A whistle, a blow from the smokestack, a lurching jerk, and you were on your way.
This primitive mode of transportation was the best folks of the 19th century could expect, but it was all they had. Prior to that, only wagons and horses provided any type of escape from what was often a dreary existence at home. But trains gave a viable opportunity to travel long distances in relative comfort. Those who could afford a ticket relished the idea of visiting far away lands and meeting other people. Worries were forgotten in the anticipation of seeing something new.
It was not until 1877 that the first tracks, those of the Southern Pacific Railroad, were laid in southern Arizona. Folks must have marveled that just a few years prior, pioneers relied on lengthy and dangerous trips via wagon trips to get anywhere. At least some of those early travelers had in fact been surveyors sent West, specifically to explore and map the Territory for the coming of the rails. The Southern Pacific, combined with the coming of the Atlantic & Pacific to northern Arizona in 1881, was a dream come true. Although construction was indeed slow, by 1883 one could catch a train to California, New Mexico or Texas and beyond.
Still, train travel was slow by today’s standards. It could take days or weeks to get anywhere, and unless you could afford to eat in the dining car (if they had one), your meals came out of a box you brought along (Comedian Groucho Marx recalled munching on the sandwiches and hard boiled eggs his mother sent along in a shoebox for his first trip out West) . And unless you could also afford to bunk in one of George Pullman’s famous sleeping cars, the trek would be made in one of those uncomfortable seats.
The standard weekend and even week-long vacations we have come to know would have seemed a silly waste of time. The cost of riding a train could vary from fifty cents to several dollars; therefore it made sense to get the most out of the trip by staying a month or more at your destination. In some of the larger towns, your best hope was to rent a private home whilst the “landlord” and their family lived in a smaller house out back and worked as your servants. Although they are often referred to now as “mother-in-law” cottages, such places can still be spotted in older historic neighborhoods.
Obviously, only the wealthier class could afford such a trip. Even those who could spring for a vacation by rail faced other potential dangers along the way. Opening the window for fresh air was out of the question, lest cinders or smoke drift in from the front of the train. The tracks, laid over rough and barren terrain, could become unstable and cause a derailment with the potential for injury or fatalities. Bridges could be washed out by flash floods, also a great concern. Or, the train could be robbed by bad guys who might demand cash and jewelry from passengers at gunpoint.
Was it worth the risk? You bet, because at the end of the track lay a vast ocean to enjoy, or perhaps a luxury hotel, or some sort of theater or other cultural delight. Besides, by 1900 train travel and ticket prices had improved enough to merit quick trips between towns. Day trips also became increasingly available. By the early 1900’s tourists could easily take the Grand Canyon Railroad, the train from Adamana to the Petrified Forest, the Santa Fe, Prescott & Phoenix and many other lines to visit their favorite attractions.
By the time Arizona achieved statehood in 1912, an amazing 1,678 miles of track had been laid. The number had increased to 2,524 miles by 1930, but by then train travel was quickly being replaced by the likes of automobiles and even airplanes. Today Amtrak reigns as the number one passenger railroad in America. The accommodations are only slightly improved, but the days of true train travel are now of a bygone era.
Frances and Cora Wallace, daughter and wife of cattleman Frank Wallace, show off their latest traveling outfits in this circa 1910 image. Copyright Jan MacKell Collins; use prohibited without written permission.