Riding the Rails in America

Summer! It’s warm out, with the smell of vegetation in the air, and after a year plus of lockdown, people are eager to wander again. But with international travel restrictions still in place, many are finding that local journeys are the way to go. In the United States, with its far-flung highway system, I envision lots of planned road trips, with visits to heritage sites and the beautiful and varied national parks. While I like a good road trip as much as the next person, long days of driving and traffic can turn into a chore, especially if your car breaks down. Such stops can be serendipitous—once, on a drive from the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York to Florida, I spent a lovely couple of unscheduled days in Savannah, Georgia, while waiting on a part for my old, not-so-trusty Isuzu Trooper. But I’ve always thought that for seeing the vast sweep and range of the American landscape, you can’t beat a cross-country rail trip.

While the comprehensive rail network that once crisscrossed the country has largely given way to highways, there are still long haul, regional and freight railroads in use. For summer travel, what I have in mind are the heritage versions of the classic passenger train journeys widely taken before commercial air travel became the default. Even the names evoke a romantic era of train travel: the Lakeshore Limited from New York to Chicago, the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco, the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Riding from the East Coast to the West, you can experience the Great Lakes, the midwestern plains with their sweeping vistas, the Mississippi River that winds through eight states, stunning mountain ranges like the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas and the canyons and deserts of the American west.

But riding the rails isn’t only about nostalgia and dramatic scenery. You’re also taking a ride into American history. The transcontinental railroad was first conceived in 1845 and received federal backing in a bill signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862. It was designed as a kind of corporate competition for land grants and dollars, with one railroad starting the tracks eastward from Sacramento, California, and the other built westward from the Missouri River, racing to meet in the middle. The railroad’s completion was commemorated by a 17.6-karat golden spike linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific tracks, driven into the ground on May 10, 1869. 

While the railroad brought benefits to businesses, communities and travellers alike, it wasn’t built without sacrifice. The work was backbreaking and dangerous for workers, including enslaved and free black people, as well as immigrant Chinese laborers, toiling in brutal conditions for little or no pay. Native Americans opposed (sometimes violently) its passage through tribal land.

The railroad was also a site of civil rights and labor history. Black men traditionally worked as Pullman porters, attending to train passengers on sleeper cars from boarding to detrainment. The jobs provided a stable source of employment, but the wages were low, the conditions discriminatory and the hours long. The porters endured racism from riders and exploitation by managers. In 1925, they famously banded together to form the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, led by A. Philip Randolph and Milton P. Webster, to organise for better working conditions, finally achieving union recognition in 1935 and a contract two years later.

The rails were also a lifestyle for itinerant workers, called hobos, during periods of widespread unemployment, such as the Great Depression, and later, a footloose escape from the harsh realities of the wage grind. The slang term ‘hobo’ first came into use in American English circa 1890. 

Women are often omitted from accounts of railroad history, although they also worked and travelled on trains, even hopping the freights, facing discrimination, the threat of violence and exploitation along the way.

The rail network was conscripted into service by the US military during both world wars, used to transport troops, goods and equipment from coast to coast.

It’s easy to see why the riding the rails inspired singers from Arlo Guthrie to Johnny Cash: 

Feel the wheels rumblin’ ‘neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel

Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin’ to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

(from City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman) 

— post by Suzanne Solomon


Filed under American History, American Travel

2 responses to “Riding the Rails in America

  1. 14corps

    In the 1950’s my mom would take us three kids on the Santa Fe Super Chief from Los Angeles to Albuquerque every summer for a short visit with her family on their farm. The train left L.A. in the afternoon and arrived about noon the next day.
    I mostly remember the soothing sounds of the track at night as we drifted off to sleep, and the nice breakfast in the dining car.

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