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Setting the Stage

Historical Context


Americans love to ride on trains. This fascination began in Baltimore in 1830 and spread during the decades that followed as the railroad companies laid ribbons of rail across the vast continent. It was a monumental task, with mountains and rivers presenting formidable obstacles, yet slowly but surely, it was done. At first, many believed the smooth rails in which passengers rode over would facilitate speeds way too dangerous for human beings. Others believed the costs involved to build the railroad would make it a ridiculous venture for transportation. Despite these initial obstacles, the industry took hold of the American public almost immediately. For the first time, what was considered “long-distance” travel was easier than ever before. This new technology provided the American people with a greater freedom to move themselves from the place of their initial birth and take up roots in far off locations.

John White explains in The American Railroad Passenger Car, during the years from 1860 to 1930rail travel was by far the most popular means of inland transportation. In fact, during the peak years just prior to the First World War, 98 percent of all intercity travel was by rail. Not even the automobile can make such a claim. But the glory days of railroad passenger travel are long gone, initially a victim of the economic depression of the 1930s and ultimately the post-World War II boom that saw automobiles and airplanes surpass trains as the primary means of personal and business travel within the United States. Many 21st century Americans take their first train ride in a museum setting, rather than from the local depot en route to some far off destination. 

The earliest passenger trains were little more than wooden boxes with flanged wheels to keep it on the rails. Horses had to be changed every 6 or 7 miles and they offered none of the comforts for which future trains were renowned. The American infatuation with trains was born with these simple vehicles. It blossomed into a full-fledged love affair as competition prompted countless innovations that produced legendary comforts, including elaborate meals prepared by expert chefs and served by highly trained dining car staff. Eventually, long distance travel created the need for overnight accommodations, and the railroads went to great lengths to provide passengers with the most comfortable sleeping arrangements. For those who could afford it, passenger trains offered a nice hotel and great food “on wheels.” Who could ask for more?

This reading was excerpted from The American Railroad Passenger Car, by John H. White.
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