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  • Writer's pictureConnie Lacy

Not for sissies: Train travel in the 1850s

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

The image is a romantic one. Women in fashionable full-length dresses boarding well-appointed trains for a scenic journey on the rails. But as I research my forthcoming novel set in 1850s Pennsylvania, I’ve discovered that railroad travel for women – and men – was usually anything but romantic.

As railroads began offering passenger service – the first passenger train in the US was operated by the Baltimore and Ohio rail line in 1827 – seating was what you might call egalitarian. There were no luxury cars. Everyone suffered equally. Trips were short and the convenience of speed was worth it to people accustomed to trips in horse-drawn coaches and wagons that could take days or weeks.

Gradually, railroads began to upgrade their cars, making them longer and wider, and providing more comfortable seating – for a price. First class passengers rode in cars toward the rear of the train where the air was more breathable, and where, in case of a train wreck (and there were many,) they had a better chance of surviving.

But in the 1850s, train travel was stifling in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was bumpy, smelly, and downright uncomfortable. Imagine sitting on a wooden bench for hours in a railway car that rattled and swayed, with spit on the bare floor. Imagine being unable to open the windows because of the smoke, soot and embers wafting in from the smokestack of the chugging engine up front. Black passengers usually had to ride in Emigrant cars, designated for poor immigrants and others, or in the mail car. Train stations often had no eateries. Some train stations were just open-air depots with no facilities at all. If there was a lavatory, it was basically an outhouse with a hole that opened onto the zooming railroad ties below.

This is the time period when my characters take the train because it’s the fastest and easiest way to travel.

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