Saturday, July 30, 2016


It was big news 140 years ago.

The Transcontinental Express made the trip from New York City to San Francisco in 83 hours—only three days and 11 hours!—and stunned the nation. A human being could ride the rails and cross the country in less than four days. Yowza!

The coast-to-coast railroad connection had been completed only seven years earlier, after the federal government had supported the epic project with millions in government bonds and vast land grants. (Quite a few people got rich, illegally, in the process, and some members of Congress were in that clique).

The amazing fact of speedy passage from sea to shining seas was celebrated as a boon to commercial and industrial development, and to the national prestige of the United States, which had more miles of railroad track than any other country.

Some of the folks who read the news on June 4, 1876, could remember that it took Vice President Jefferson 10 days to travel the 225 miles, using horsepower, from Monticello to his office in Philadelphia (the national capital until 1801). notes that at the time, the 100-mile trip from Philadelphia to New York City required “two days hard travel in a light stagecoach.” The word “comfortable” wasn’t used in any ads by stagecoach operators. 

 For a lot of folks, travel on the early transcontinental trains wasn’t much of a treat. First-class passengers wallowed in sumptuous splendor, but third-class travelers got a narrow wooden bench to sit on, no privacy and darn little respect—the third-class coaches often were shunted onto sidings to allow faster express trains to take precedence on the single track that served most of the route. The hoi polloi spent a whole lot more than 83 hours in their noisy coaches as they made the cross-country passage.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

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