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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: “The Railway Accident Gazette”

This is an account written by a traveler on a passenger train in 1864. It offers a glimpse of his experience on an early sleeping car in upstate New York near the end of the Civil War. He offers some interesting observations. This reading is from America During and After the War, by Robert Ferguson.This excerpt appears in The Railroad Passenger Train, by August Mencken.

In America the railroad seems to be considered a public highway on which the company has the right of toll. When you enter a station you see no porters from whom to make an inquiry, nor is there anyone person whose business it is to find you a seat. There is no one whose duty it is to prevent you from breaking your neck by getting in when the train is in motion. You must find out your train and take your place as best you can. The conductor usually cries “All Aboard” when the train is about to start, but sometimes when it is ready it silently moves off.

At Albany we changed trains for Niagara and I made my first acquaintance with the sleeping-car. The sleeping-car is in the day time like any other car but by a number of ingenious contrivances its transformation is effected in a very short time, as when the train stops for supper. Each pair of seats makes up into one bed, so that a person when lying takes up just the same room as four persons sitting. Then, by means of various supports and appliances attached to the sides of the car, a second tier of beds is arranged above the first. Sometimes there is a third tier but this is not the general rule and crowds the car to an uncomfortable extent. In some cases there are berths completely partitioned off, so that ladies may regularly go to bed as they like in all privacy. At each end there is generally a stove and also a place for washing in the morning.

Travelers have sometimes complained of unpleasant closeness in these cars but inasmuch as they generally contain only one half and in no case more than three-fourths of the ordinary number of passengers and as the means of ventilation are at least equal to those in the other cars. These cars are not generally run by the railroad companies themselves but are the property of private individuals or of companies. You pay your ordinary fare to the railroad company and when you get into the sleeping-car you pay the additional charge, generally not more than fifty cents, to the person appointed to receive it.

The most uncomfortable part of the proceedings I found to be getting up in the morning, while the car was being transformed into its former state, and the occupants were crowded into the narrow passageway in the middle.

We started from Washington by steamer for Richmond by way of Acquia Creek. It was a lovely morning and the passengers were scattered about smoking, reading, or playing euchre when a person came around with a sheaf of papers called the “Railway Accident Gazette,” in fact a record of the principal accidents that had happened in the Untied States in the last six months. All the most frightening cases of smashing to pieces, scalding to death, drowning, blowing up into the air were arrayed before the eyes of the dismayed traveler. I was at a loss to conceive the meaning of the cold-blooded cruelty of giving the unfortunate passengers such a record. This, however, was presently explained by the return of our tormentor bringing with him a note book and a bundle of tickets and I found that he was the agent of a Life Insurance Company whose business it was, first to terrify the passengers into a suitable frame of mind, and then to insure their lives for them.

Questions for Reading 2:

1.      What observation does the author make about the train station before he boards the train? 
2.      What “transformation” must take place in order to create a sleeping car?
3.      What types of dangers does the author explain are part of railroad traveling during this time period?
4.      What scheme is underway that results in the author and other passengers reading the “Railway Accident Gazette?”
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