Early Railroads in the United States

69 Workmen

“69workmen” by Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.
Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US.

After Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita, Kansas in 1907, in Wichita Snake, he descends to the railway platform from the Will Rogers, a passenger train that represented part of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, which ran from St. Louis through Oklahoma City and into Wichita. The “Frisco” line was part of the Missouri and Central Division of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Interestingly, despite its title, the Frisco never came closer than 1,000 miles to San Francisco, the city for which the line was named.

Railroads had been a part of the American transportation infrastructure since the early 19th century and served the quickly emerging commercial and personal transportation needs of a relatively new country. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad, which joined the Central Pacific line and the Union Pacific Line in Promontory, Utah in 1869, created an astonishing new way for Americans to travel from coast to coast, as well as expanded access to markets for farmers and ranchers. The famous “cowtowns” in the 19th century, of which Wichita, Kansas was one, owed their livelihood to the availability of gas-mechanical and, after the turn of the century, gas-electric and diesel locomotives.

Early Railroads: Travel in Style!

Early railroads, meaning those that came online before the turn of the 20th century, remain impressive from a historical perspective, even today, for two reasons.

One, they very quickly accommodated themselves to the convenience of travelers with water closets, carpets, gas lamps and Pullman cars that allowed night-time travelers to convert their walkover seats into two-tiered sleeping berths. Although most such cars provided only open-section accommodation, meaning passengers had to share their sleeping quarters with strangers, curtains could be pulled between sleepers and the aisles, allowing some modicum of privacy. Only a few luxury lines provided private Pullman cars.

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This surprises for the fact that one might consider the very development of a gas-powered vehicle capable of moving great distances across steel rails enough of an accomplishment. But the fact that modern conveniences were available in early railroads hints at the likelihood that railway investors believed they had to sell more than simply a functional railroad. They had to sell a positive experience.

The second reason early passenger railways continue to be appreciated was that they could travel at fairly high speeds, even by today’s standards. Some trains could travel more than 100 miles per hour and some personalities, such as Death Valley Scotty, in 1905, pulled off a publicity stunt by riding the rails at record speeds from Los Angeles to Chicago via the Santa Fe railway line. Attention-grabbing acts like that only served to heighten awareness and interest in this emerging mode of transportation.

Scotty, incidentally, was a bit of a loudmouth regarding his prospecting and mining exploits, and it was the combination of his LA-to-Chicago adventure and his mining “experience” that first brought him to the attention of Glen Marshall’s wife, Abby Maris, which in turn led her to consider the railway as a way for her and Glen to get out of their hometown of Monongah, West Virginia, in 1907, to escape economic deprivation and hardship.

Unfortunately, while their westward journey works out well all the way through Springfield, Missouri, the hub for the multiple lines of the Frisco, they run into trouble soon after crossing the border into Kansas. By the time Glen steps down on the platform, he is alone. Abby has been killed by a local crime syndicate.

Early Railroads: Serving Farmers, or So They Say

But while the glitz and glamour of passenger trains fared well nationwide, encouraged by features such as promotional posters with attractive women who coquettishly encouraged Americans to escape to remote places like California, the commercial end of early railroads did not fare well in the public relations sphere. In fact, they were constantly derided, primarily by farmers and ranchers.

Wichita, Kansas was one of many booming American cowtowns that early railroads helped put on the map. For a time, the railways served the interests of cowboys, rustlers and cattle drivers, and of farmers and ranchers in other states.

Unfortunately, while railroad owners back east expanded their lines as quickly as possible throughout the country (sometimes going bankrupt in the process) to accommodate the availability of agricultural goods in multiple locations, they also recognized they were the only game in town to help farmers get their produce to market. Price gouging was not uncommon, nor was the shiftiness of owners in their contracts with local lease holders.

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In one particularly well-known conflict, local settlers squared off against law enforcement officers hired to protect the part of the Central Pacific Railway line that ran through California’s San Joaquin Valley. The episode, commonly referred to as the Mussel Slough Tragedy, was largely instigated by double-meaning advertising by the railroad, which offered what seemed a fixed sales price of $2.50 per acre for land immediately abutting the line. But when the value of the land rose and the Central Pacific raised the per acre purchase rate, locals intent on buying became upset to the point where a fight broke out at a farm in Tulare County, which resulted in the deaths of seven men. (A historic landmark recognizing the land title dispute still stands at a location just north of Hanford, California.)

The incident served as an inspiration for Frank Norris’ immensely successful novel, The Octopus (1901), and the overall disdain for the railways’ unsavory business practices led to more critical works such as The Railroad Question by William Larrabee in 1893. As a freshman at Virginia Tech, I enrolled in a U.S. history course, during which my professor pointed out that the two Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, likely represented eastern industrialists….and western railroads. (The scarecrow and tin man–good characters, both, of course–metaphorically represented the exploited farmer and industrial worker.)

Early Railroads: The Good and the Bad

Glen Marshall has a pretty smooth ride in a Pullman car all the way from West Virginia to Kansas. The era of cross-country travel had begun many decades previously, and countless towns and communities throughout the nation emerged to the public sphere as a result of commercial interests served by the railroads. Glen escapes his mining community as a result of this new “octopus” of railway lines that spread itself across the country, but because he runs into trouble in Kansas, he will have to leave town, and soon.

Thank God there’s a train leaving Wichita the following morning!

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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  1. Pingback: Wichita Commercial Club - Business Beginnings | The Write PlaceThe Write Place

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