C 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins
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. This was the beginning of a typical Victorian vacation.
After purchasing a train 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 seeing 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 and traveled west. Folks must have marveled that just a few years prior, pioneers relied on lengthy and dangerous trips via wagons 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, Albuquerque 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. 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. 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 better yet, a family waiting to rent you their entire home while they lived in a smaller house out back and played servant to your needs. Besides, by 1900 train travel and ticket prices had improved enough to merit quick trips between towns. Day trips also became increasingly available. Travelers could hop the train and stop at any of a number of towns on the way to their final destination, a real convenience for traveling salesmen and others who just wanted to follow the rails as they glided across the prairie.
Today Amtrak still 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 are dressed in their finest as they await a train by sitting on their trunks in Arizona. Photo copyright Jan MacKell Collins.