May 17, 2019
Today (May 10) marks the 150th anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad line in the United States, and I’ve been thinking about how that event impacted the lives of our ancestors. Most of us probably think of modern transportation as including automobiles and jet airliners; we tend to think of trains as somewhat old-fashioned and slow, but in the 19th century, they were definitely marvels of modern transportation. I know, for example, that one of my great-great grandmothers traveled from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Ogden, Utah in the summer of 1850. The trip, made by oxen-drawn wagon, took over three months to complete, and that was considered a quick trip. Thirty years later, my great grandparents took a similar trip from Omaha to Utah in only 3 ½ days. The later trip was made by train, and my grandfather, who was only eight years old at the time, remembered that trip for the rest of his long life.
My grandfather’s trip was probably quite uncomfortable by today’s standards because the family was poor, and they bought the cheapest tickets available which meant that they traveled in a converted cattle car, sitting on wooden benches. They brought along their own food, which probably wasn’t too appetizing after several days at room temperature, and I don’t even want to think about the water and bathroom conditions that the young family endured. However, the trip was a miracle to my grandfather and his family since it entailed no trudging along a dusty trail and camping in often dry and dusty spots along the trail for weeks on end, all accompanied by the smells and sounds of balky oxen who required daily care even after the day’s travel was done.
Another ancestral family’s journey to Utah was even more impacted by the building of the railroads. My mother’s grandmother was only nine years old when her life was changed by her family’s immigration from New Zealand to Utah. The first part of the journey was, of course, via ship, but by 1877, when her family made their trip, the ship they sailed on was a steamship, and the trip across the vast Pacific from the South Island of New Zealand to San Francisco took only a couple of weeks – even with several stops in Wellington, Auckland and Hawaii. Compared to voyages on the earlier sailing ships which could take months to complete, this trip was definitely a marvel of modern transportation for my family. The final leg of the trip, from California to Utah, would have been even more amazing since that section of the voyage took only four days, even with an overnight stop for a blocked tunnel and a missed connection that caused some delay. Ten years earlier, the trip from California, which crossed the Sierra Nevada mountain range and also the deserts of Nevada, would have taken weeks and would have been treacherous for a young family to undertake since stretches of the trail had no potable water for people or beasts.
Both of these families settled down in Utah, and members of the families lived to see the advent of automobiles and even transcontinental airline flights. However, for all of them the transcontinental railroad was the marvel of modern transportation that impressed them the most. After all the later refinements on the train’s ability to transport people quickly from one place to another.
Researcher/Director at Large