The Coming Of The Railroad The End Of The Great West
IN CROSSING THE ROCKIES , the transcontinental railroad went through some equally rugged parts of America’s imagination
IN AN AGE WHEN SATELLITE COMMUNI cations can take us anywhere in the world within moments, we sometimes forget how short a time it has been since the interior of our own continent seemed as remote and mysterious as darkest Africa. To the generation that swelled with pride over the driving of the Golden Spike, spanning the continent meant something more than faster, easier travel. It offered access to a harsh but spectacular landscape that had long fascinated Americans. No part of the Wild West was more wild than the stretch across Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada that would be traversed by the new transcontinental railroad. Other than the Mormons, only a handful of whites actually lived there, and only soldiers, trappers, miners, explorers, adventurers, some hardy pioneers, and those who had strayed from the Oregon Trail had even seen any of it.
When the project of building a transcontinental railroad was taken up in the 1860s, the legend of the Great American Desert still flourished. The interior was known to be forbidding terrain where the weather was fierce, water was scarce, and the Indians were hostile. Those who knew anything of that vast, desolate stretch were not encouraged at the prospect of its development. To the eyes that had seen it and the imaginations that had not, it seemed as remote as the moon—which is exactly the right image for our purposes. The building of the first transcontinental railroad was to its generation what the moon project was to ours: the planting of a first tentative foot in unknown space.
A year before the rails joined at Promontory, Walt Whitman captured this sense of exhilaration in a verse from “Passage to India”:
I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam- whistle, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world
As always when reaching out toward a world larger than their own, Americans felt confident of making it smaller through familiarity.
FROM THE VERY FIRST, IN OTHER WORDS, THE OVERLAND route meant much more than a glimpse at exotic scenery. It was a test, a challenge to the greatness Americans felt was their inevitable future. Even a destiny so obviously manifest still had to be acted out on the stage of history, and what grander or more fitting stage could be found for the drama than conquest of this wondrous terra incognita? Far from being merely a route west, the railroad was a path through the wilderness, a corridor of civilization along which the engines of progress would spread their irresistible influence. Some realized that there would be losses as well as gains. A young engineer named Arthur Ferguson, toiling in one of the Union Pacific’s survey parties during the summer of 1868, grasped this truth. “The time is coming, and fast, too,” he scribbled in his diary, “when in the sense it is now understood, THERE WILL BE NO WEST .”
Like so much of human experience, the whole business can seem much more appealing and uplifting in retrospect. One useful corrective to this glazing-over process is to look at the impressions of those who were present at the creation. Consider first what the construction of a transcontinental railroad meant in practical terms. After the resolution of the Mexican War in 1848, the United States found itself suddenly possessed of a huge stretch of continent with no way to connect its opposite ends. Nearly two thousand miles of apparent wasteland and rugged mountains separated the frontier town of Chicago from the soon-to-be-burgeoning population of California.
To reach the West Coast by sea from New York, a traveler had two options: a thirty-five-day, 6,000-mile trip down to Panama, across the malaria-infested isthmus, and up the West Coast, or a five-month passage 17,000 miles around treacherous Cape Horn. The Overland Stage route from St. Louis to San Francisco cut the distance to 2,800 miles and the time to thirty days—for travelers who could endure the constant jouncing and the manifold dangers, including Indians, bandits, and the weather. All these routes found takers, especially after the discovery of gold in California (in 1848) and Colorado (in 1858) led a flood of fortune seekers and camp followers to head west. The overland railroad route changed from a visionary scheme to a practical project in response to the growing demand for a cheaper, safer, more convenient way to penetrate this remote interior.
It is striking to realize how quickly the West changed in the national consciousness from remote moonscape to destiny’s doorway. The Mormons learned painfully well how fast this transition could occur. They were the only large colony of whites inhabiting the area, having deliberately chosen the wilds of Utah as a haven from persecution. After moving to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they hoped to dwell there forever without interference from the outside world. It seemed a reasonable hope, yet their isolation lasted barely a decade. One of their earliest visitors was Samuel B. Reed, an engineer sent west to find a route for the proposed transcontinental railroad.
When the Pacific Railroad Acts passed Congress in 1862 and 1864, the question of what route the Union Pacific should follow had yet to be answered. The Platte River Valley offered an obvious and easy route from the Missouri to the Rockies. Over the years its path had been tramped by buffalo, Indians, fur traders, Mormons, and emigrants bound for Oregon or California. But there were problems even with this route, and huge question marks in the mountains and beyond. In the spring of 1864 Reed went out to explore the most remote segment of the route, from Green River, Wyoming, to Salt Lake. Although he did not realize it, his journey offered a final glimpse of the overland route as it was before the coming of the railroad.
In 1864 the train carried Reed only as far west as Grinnell, Iowa, where he caught a stagecoach for Omaha, Nebraska. Tired and cramped, he crossed the Missouri River by ferry early on a Sunday morning in April and was surprised to find Omaha bustling. Reed looked up one of Brigham Young’s sons, who was there waiting to lead an emigrant train across the Plains. The elder Young had taken a keen interest in the railroad project and agreed to outfit Reed’s party. His son provided helpful information, as did other Utah men.
Reed found all the stages booked solid with fortune hunters bound for Montana, where more gold had been discovered. “Hundreds pass through here every day,” he noted, “old men, young men, the lame and the blind, with women and children, all going westward seeking the promised land.” He took a boat down the Missouri River to Atchison, Kansas, and managed to wangle seats on a stage for himself and an assistant. Atchison, too, was crowded with gold seekers, as well as runaway slaves.
The two engineers squeezed into a coach with seven other travelers. For thirteen days and nights the stage rattled monotonously onward, except when storms or mud forced the driver to lay up. During one downpour the passengers found refuge on beds of hay in a stable; on another night they shared space on a rancher’s floor. The sand hills of southern Nebraska struck Reed as dreary and desolate, broken only by an occasional cabin or stage station, where teams were changed and a meal of hard bread and bacon could be gulped down. At one stop everyone got sick from drinking alkali water.
A week after leaving Atchison, the stage pulled into Latham, Colorado, where the Denver passengers changed coaches. Reed and his assistant alone continued on through the mountains, crossing the Continental Divide at Bridger’s Pass. At journey’s end Salt Lake came as no less of a revelation to the tired and dirty Reed than the massive ranges that shielded it from the outside world. Although he did not share the prejudice of many Americans against the Mormons, he was astounded to find that their Zion in the wilderness was more than myth. “I have never been in a town of this size in the United States where everything is kept in such perfect order as in this City of the Saints,” he marveled. “No hogs or cattle allowed to run at large in the streets and every available nook of ground is made to bring forth fruit, vegetables, or flowers for man’s use.”
Brigham Young greeted Reed warmly and provided him with three mule teams, tents, camp equipment, and fifteen men. Reed paused to give the men a week of training, then headed north to where the Weber River emerged from the mountains into Salt Lake Valley. By sheer coincidence he commenced his survey near the spot (at Ogden) that five years later would become the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. Entering the canyon, he was awed by the sight of a deep, narrow gorge through which the river snaked between towering walls several thousand feet high: It was, he wrote, “the wildest place you can imagine.” He had found Devil’s Gate.
FOR NEARLY FOUR MONTHS THE PARTY HACKED ITS WAY through thick brush and clambered along canyon walls. Occasionally they stumbled onto a valley tucked behind the ridges and were grateful for the relief from their exertions. At night they slept on the ground beneath buffalo robes. Food was plentiful while they lingered near the Mormon settlements scattered through the valleys; on Young’s orders the faithful provided the surveyors with fresh mutton, butter, eggs, and milk. In more remote areas Reed’s men caught trout and shot an occasional antelope to vary their diet of bacon, bread, beans, and fruit. “I can eat more at a meal than ever before in my life,” Reed noted happily, “and don’t care how often the meals occur.”
Fieldwork often had a bewitching effect on engineers, and Reed, too, felt its magic. The harder he worked, the better he felt. The challenge of finding a good line through the wilderness drove him joyously onward. He came to love the country and its spectacular beauty—the hard, clean brilliance of the air, the warm days and cold nights, when ice as thick as windowpanes formed on the dishes even in summer. Life was elemental and palpable, stripped of all cant, transparent in its excitement as well as its dangers.
Reed had made in fact what would become in fiction the central theme of the American experience: the pilgrimage from civilization back to nature. He was far from being the only engineer to treasure that journey at a time when, for a few brief months, his life seemed to transcend the mundane level of ordinary affairs. Nor was he alone in failing to see the irony in his mission. He had come as an agent of those forces eager to transform the wilderness by harnessing it to the blessings of civilization and progress.
Not every engineer found his work so enchanting. In 1865 Arthur Ferguson ventured uneasily into the region between the Platte and Republican rivers, where some of the worst clashes with Indians had occurred. “This is a terrible country, the stillness, wildness & desolation of which is awful,” he wrote. “Not a tree to be seen, nothing but a succession of hill & valley.” An Army doctor, Henry C. Parry, tramping the overland route in July 1867 found along the north border of the Platte River “not a tree, bush, not even a stick of wood … nothing but one broad, level expanse of green land, dotted with little patches of prairie grass.”
Once into Wyoming, the doctor found more appealing scenery: a prairie of “fragrant and beautifully tinted flowers. Diminutive purple morning glories, sweetly scented roses, yellow butter-cups, and crimson bell shaped flowers are blooming in luxurious profusion.” In the bottomlands delicate lilies lifted their white heads in numbers that carved winding, milky streams through the thick prairie grass. “No plant is prettier than the cactus, which shoots forth its red and golden flowers in June and July,” he recorded. Beyond the rolling green sea to the west the snowcapped peaks of the Rockies shimmered in the sunlight. At night the doctor basked in the small pleasures of camp life, “the pipe of tobacco as you lie in the warmth of the camp-fire digesting your hearty meal, smoking and either engaged with your thoughts or listening to some legend that is always told among a party of officers.”
West of Cheyenne the country got decidedly less hospitable. That same summer the formidable Grenville M. Dodge, chief engineer of the Union Pacific and the man most responsible for seeing the road to completion, retraced the steps of Percy Browne, an engineer slain by Indians, from Fort Sanders across the Continental Divide. As he passed through wild, menacing country north of the Medicine Bow range, Dodge found his thoughts dwelling on what a spectacle the scenery would make from the window of a passing train. In the Rattlesnake (now Saddleback) Hills he discovered a pass striking the head of St. Mary’s Creek; he named it in Browne’s honor and later gave the name Percy to a station at the creek’s head. Near the top of the pass the party’s geologist found immense deposits of coal at a place Dodge called Carbon. The company’s first coal mine would be dug there.
The day after crossing the Continental Divide, Dodge’s party fanned out in search of water. Wandering southward through arid countryside with Gen. John A. Rawlins, a close friend of Ulysses S. Grant who was suffering from consumption and had come west for his health, Dodge found a spring gushing from a bed of rock. Rawlins tasted the water and pronounced it “the most gracious thing” he had ever found. Dodge named the place in Rawlins’s honor. He also discovered that the spring had cut its way through the ridge beyond, making easy passage for a roadbed.
HEADING NORTH, DODGE WAS ASTONISHED TO SEE the mountains give way to a series of basins, at the center of which lay a giant one some three hundred feet below the surrounding country. A vast plain running two hundred miles east-west and from forty to one hundred miles north-south stretched before him, with little vegetation and no living streams. It would make an easy line if water could be found. He assumed the divide descended toward Green River, but instead his party found itself plodding into the giant basin and through the alkali wastes of the Red Desert. On the third day their water ran out, and scouts found only dry creek beds, the “shallow graves of deceased rivers.” Burned and blinded by the sun, their tongues swollen with thirst, men and animals endured two days’ march without water before stumbling on an alkali lake. The water was not palatable, but they swarmed gratefully to it.
Nearby they bumped into another survey party working east from Green River. They too had been violently ill from stagnant or poisonous water they had found in the desert. Comparing notes brought Dodge to the realization that the Continental Divide had not one but two summits, at opposite ends of the giant basin. He led his party down an old trail in search of an outlet over the western rim of the basin to Bitter Creek, painfully aware now that it was “all-important to cross these plains on the shortest possible route that would carry our line from running water to running water.”
After some rugged going, Dodge’s party struck Bitter Creek at Point of Rocks, where the sandstone cliffs had been carved into bizarre shapes by the wind. Dodge guessed that an excellent line with low grades could be found across the divide by leaving the basin earlier and taking a gentler approach to Bitter Creek. He was right, but the engineer sent to find such a line did so only after months of great hardship and difficult work. From Bitter Creek Dodge followed a splendid line that had been run by James A. Evans in 1864 through the winding valley to Green River. There he met a survey party headed by Fred Hodges, who had been exploring the ground from Salt Lake to Green River via Bear River.
Hodges’s report left Dodge uncertain about the best route from Green River to Salt Lake. He decided to follow the line run earlier by Reed along Black’s Fork to Fort Bridger, up Muddy Creek, and across the divide to Bear River Valley and into Echo Canyon. Close inspection showed it was a good line that could be made better. From Echo his party wound its way into Weber Canyon and through the narrows to Salt Lake Valley. The trip convinced Dodge that the true line lay north of Salt Lake, probably along a refined version of Reed’s original survey. Once again he was right.
If this was not enough, Dodge also had a grand notion about a route all the way to Puget Sound via the Snake River. On his return trip he followed Hodges’s line north to Soda Springs and beyond to Gray’s Lake, where he reached the waters of the Snake. What he saw convinced him that a route along the Snake River valley “would be by far the best line from the Atlantic to the Pacific, would avoid the high elevation of the Wahsatch and Sierra Nevadas with their heavy grades and troublesome snows.” From atop a ridge he peered across a magnificent wilderness through which the Union Pacific would later build its Oregon Short Line.
On this remarkable journey Dodge had done more than survey a major portion of the Union Pacific west of the plains. Along the way he had mapped a part of the West, filling it with names and places that would become legendary—including Cheyenne itself, which he named after the dominant tribe of the region despite his hostility toward Indians.
No one deserves more credit for the overland route than Grenville Dodge and his corps of engineers, who by 1868 had completed a line all the way to Humboldt Wells, Nevada. Dodge was a fair but stern taskmaster; at Promontory Point he made the crews survey a dozen lines until he got one that satisfied him. Nothing in the early history of the Union Pacific proved more impressive or enduring than the final route, through an inhospitable, untapped wilderness bristling with natural obstacles. Although they were allowed grades of 116 feet per mile (2.2 percent) by law, the engineers included none above 90 feet. Some contemporary critics charged that they had made the line longer than necessary to garner more subsidy bonds from the government, but when E. H. Harriman spent millions to improve the line three decades later, his engineers took only 30 miles off the original 1,032 to Ogden. The two major reductions came at points where the original survey had been altered over the engineer’s protests.
Behind the engineers came the construction crews, who found the region west of Laramie as unpleasant as Dodge had warned. “It is not a country where people are disposed to linger,” wrote James Evans. Jack Casement, one of the brothers in charge of track laying, did not mince words. “This is an awfull place,” he grumbled, “alkali dust knee deep and certainly the meanest place I have ever been in.”
THE CREWS DID NOT WANDER INTO THE WIL derness alone, not even in the desert. On their trail came the porta-towns dubbed “Hell on Wheels,” a motley collection of makeshift structures that housed an even more motley collection of camp followers who serviced and preyed on the construction gangs. They were the ghost towns of the overland route, unfolding overnight wherever the crews camped and disappearing in a wink once the men pushed farther west.
The most miserable of these dens of vice was Benton, Wyoming, set smack in the desert where the alkali dust was eight inches deep and inhaling it drew blood from the lungs. Benton, wrote a Cheyenne editor, “like the camps of the Bedouin Arabs, is of tents, and almost a transitory nature as the elements of a soap bubble.” Those hardy enough to visit the place came away with the feeling that they had glimpsed a suburb of hell. The novelist J. H. Beadle turned up there in August 1868. Tramping through the alkali in his black suit until he resembled “a cockroach struggling through a flour barrel,” he found “not a green tree, shrub or patch of grass. The red hills were scorched as bare as if blasted by lightning.” What did impress him was the Big Tent, the drinking, dancing, and gambling emporium that had served Julesburg, Cheyenne, and Laramie before making its desert debut.
The Big Tent was a hundred feet long and forty feet wide and had a dance floor with a raised platform for the band, which sat ready to play day and night. An elegant bar glittering with mirrors and paintings dispensed liquor in cut-glass goblets and pitchers. The rest of the space was devoted to tables for faro, monte, roulette, or whatever game of chance the reckless cared to try. Around the Big Tent sprang up a town of tents, shacks, and buildings of thinly painted pine that could be bought in Chicago for three hundred dollars and put up in a day by two boys with nothing more than screwdrivers.
Samuel Bowles, the genteel editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican , came to Benton and described it as “a village of a few variety stores and shops, by day disgusting, by night dangerous, almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day; gambling and drinking, hurdy-gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce.” The inhabitants he dismissed as a “congregation of scum.” It presumably never occurred to Bowles that people were dirty because water cost a dime a bucket and had once run as high as ten dollars a barrel.
Benton, located two miles west of Sinclair, lingered no longer than any other Hell on Wheels. Beadle came back ten months later and found not a single house or tent, only the rubble of a few chimneys and the inevitable layer of alkali covering the town’s only surviving institution, the cemetery.
Camp followers were not the only visitors to the overland route in 1868. The construction gangs found themselves overrun by excursionists eager to see the West and inspect the progress on the great national highway. That summer W. C. Durant hosted a party of journalists headed by Charles A. Dana of the New York Sun , who dubbed themselves the Rocky Mountain Press Club. A few weeks later Schuyler Colfax, soon to be Vice President of the United States, toured the road, and behind him came a band of professors from eastern universities, who watched in awe as Jack Casement’s men obligingly laid four miles of track in one day. The visitors, complained Webster Snyder, the superintendent, “have interfered with our work very much & have worn me out.” Casement agreed they were “a great nuisance,” but even in its infancy the overland route coveted good public relations.
AFTER THE DRIVING OF THE GOLDEN SPIKE IN 1869, passengers flocked eagerly to the new overland route, not always aware that transcontinental travel was still an endurance test. The Union Pacific ran one express passenger and two freight trains a day in each direction. Westbound passengers from Omaha made Promontory in fifty-four hours, an average of about nineteen miles per hour, while the eastbound trip took sixty. The usual train of two sleepers, two first-class cars, smoker, baggage, and mail cars could accommodate about 110 passengers, who, in August 1869, paid $63.33 apiece for the trip. Second-class or immigrant passengers paid only $26.81, but their crowded, Spartan coaches were hitched to freight trains, which made the run in about four days westbound or four and half days eastbound. An average freight train hauled twenty-two cars, and after shedding four or five of them with freight that was dropped off along the way, it climbed the mountains without help behind a single forty-ton engine.
Through service to Sacramento cost $111 and took about a hundred hours for passengers, not counting the transfer delays at Promontory (which served as the Union Pacific’s western terminus until the fall of 1869). A person boarding in New York arrived in San Francisco about a week later for a fare of $150. Along the way the train stopped a half-hour or less for meals. But although the trip was an ordeal even for first-class passengers, it was rapid transit compared with the horrors of what had gone before. By June 1870 fares from New York to San Francisco had dropped to $136 for first class, $110 for second class, and $65 for immigrants, whose coaches were now attached to passenger trains. This change alone cut almost in half the time immigrants had to endure the bone-rattling ride in the cabooses or converted boxcars that were used to accommodate them.
Those who could afford it found some relief in the luxurious trappings of Pullman’s Palace Cars. George M. Pullman came early to the Union Pacific with his elegant sleepers, joining forces with Andrew Carnegie to offer a proposal in 1867. The result was the creation in January 1868 of the Pullman Pacific Palace Car Company, in which the Union Pacific owned slightly more than half the shares. It has been said that Pullman’s only real invention was railroad comfort and even that may be giving him too much credit. In any case, on the long ride west comfortable accommodations were no small blessing. His cars, with their plush, ornate interiors, especially delighted British tourists, the exception being a parson who found it “an odd experience, that going to bed of some thirty ladies, gentlemen, and children, in, practically, one room.”
DEMAND FOR ACCOMMODATIONS INSPIRED PULLMAN to a bold experiment. In December 1869 he persuaded the two Pacific roads to cooperate in running a “Hotel Train” under his management. To his sleepers Pullman added new dining, drawing-room, and saloon cars, thereby eliminating meal stops. By dropping the transfer as well, the weekly special advertised that it could make San Francisco from Omaha in only eighty-one hours and, with good connections, New York to San Francisco in five and a half days. The train ran from October 1869 until June 1870, when the Central Pacific abruptly withdrew from the agreement. For a short time the Union Pacific ran the train as far as Ogden; then it discontinued it altogether.
There were several reasons why the Central Pacific pulled out with such unseemly haste. The operations people on both roads complained that the heavier Pullman equipment, coupled with the faster speed of the special train, wore down the roadbed at a brutal pace. A bigger reason had to do with a growing clash of interests between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, one that caught Pullman in the middle from the very beginning.
The Central Pacific took a dark view of through passenger service because it obliterated the separate identity of the Central Pacific, which could be clearly, if inconveniently, impressed on travelers by the transfer at Ogden. It had taken an arduous battle to bring the Hotel Train to life, and the battle did not end with its death. For three decades the same objection would confound attempts to offer premium through train service from Omaha to San Francisco.
Apart from the issue of corporate identity, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific differed fundamentally on how to operate their passenger trains. The Union Pacific decided early on to let Pullman administer its sleeper service; the Central Pacific ran its own. This meant the Hotel Train was an extension of policy for the Union Pacific but a departure for the Central Pacific. Early in 1870 Pullman tried to lure the Central Pacific into joining the Pullman Pacific Car Company, which would in effect have made them all partners and let Pullman manage the service over the entire line. A meeting was scheduled to finalize terms, but the deal got entangled in a dispute between the two roads.
The Big Four partners of the Central Pacific disagreed among themselves over what to do. Charles Crocker knew the company’s own sleepers were already running to capacity and could not handle Hotel Train passengers in addition. He favored consolidation, arguing that “we will make the most money by running Sleepers through from Omaha to S.F. & I believe Pullman will manage the line better than we do.”
Mark Hopkins disagreed vehemently: “The less of mixed management … the better it would be for us.” Hopkins opposed “this Pullman humbug” because it siphoned profits that he thought belonged to the road, and he bitterly resented the Hotel Train. “The effect of … permitting them to do it has been to give them the opportunity to disparage our own regular sleepers, as ‘second rate,’ ‘rattle traps,’ & ‘entirely unsafe’ &c &c—and they have blowed hard & made the most of their opportunity.” Hotel Trains also discouraged the growth of eating stations, which regular passenger trains required and, Hopkins thought, were useful in building up towns and industrial interests along the line.
Collis P. Huntington sided with Hopkins, and the fourth partner, Leland Stanford, does not seem to have expressed an opinion. The consolidation never occurred. Whatever the benefits for the Central Pacific, the lack of premium through service did nothing for the traveling public. For all the exotic and romantic flavor of the overland route, the actual journey was taxing enough to test the hardiest traveler. Skeptics still doubted whether the road could operate in winter. A few days after the driving of the Golden Spike, one old mountain-country hand assured readers of the New York Tribune that “the present route can never be relied on for a Winter route.” Early experiences nearly proved him right; it was a long time before railroad management comprehended the severity of a plains blizzard.
Other dangers menaced early travelers. The first fatal accident occurred on July 15, 1869, when heavy rains undermined the track and derailed a train, killing the fireman and a passenger. Indians killed a section hand in May 1870 and kept passengers jittery for months over the possibility of an attack or derailment. Fires and storms sweeping across the prairie raised hackles on travelers’ necks, as did crossing the spidery Dale Creek bridge west of Sherman, Wyoming. For most passengers, however, fatigue and discomfort were the biggest complaints. There were long delays making connections in Chicago and interminable waits to cross the Missouri in what one passenger called a “rickety old ferry boat.”
Omaha itself was alternately a mudhole and a dust bowl, and its depot a swirl of confusion from which trains departed with no more warning than the abrupt shriek of a whistle and a cry of “All aboard!” as those caught by surprise scrambled onto moving cars. The coaches were stifling in summer and freezing in winter. Open windows inhaled a cloud of smoke and hot cinders from the engine. With few exceptions, the food at eating houses ranged from bad to awful, the usual fare being steak, fried potatoes, fried eggs, and tea for every meal.
THE PLEASURES OF the journey came mainly from the passing spectacles of nature: waving oceans of prairie grass sprinkled with flowers; the bounding tumbleweeds of autumn; herds of antelope racing the cars; the playful antics of prairie dogs in their villages; occasional packs of wolves or coyotes or elk, or a lone bear, and sometimes even a few buffalo. Farther west came the mountains and soaring profiles of rock looming above Echo and Weber canyons; the forlorn isolation of Thousand Mile Tree, Castle Rock, Hanging Rock, Devil’s Slide, and the slashing course of the Weber River along its jagged bed; the sudden entry into the forbidding land of the Mormons; and beyond that the barren desert, more mountains, and the descent into California’s lush valleys.
For tourists, this glimpse of unknown worlds was a thrill that our generation can seldom, if ever, experience. The overland route still lives, but in a very different way. Except for its most durable scenic monuments, the West of the 1860s has long since left us. Indeed, like so much of nature, it began changing the moment we laid eyes and hands on it. Equally important, we are as changed as the West. To a large extent we have lost that sense of wonder and innocence that was part of life a century ago; in our age we see places a hundred times before we actually come to them. There is scarcely anything left to us like the original overland route except the mysteries of outer space.
First impressions are by their very nature a beginning, and they have a way of lingering long after the world has become a very different place. For that reason it is only fitting to close this look backward with the reminiscence of Alva B. Cady, who grew up on a farm near Grand Island, Nebraska, and became an agent for the Union Pacific. “In travelling on the great Overland Limited now,” he wrote in 1922, “you will see thousands of … old maple trees on the old Cady place, and also on the Dye and Beaman farms near the growing city of Lockwood, Nebraska, where, as a boy, I watched the old Union Pacific No. 1 and No. 2 … pass through one corner of our farm daily. I used to stand and watch them, wondering what was beyond the western horizon, and envy the trainmen who wore nice blue uniforms and did not have to milk cows, feed hogs, hoe corn in the hot sun, and run for the cyclone cellar when the ‘jimmycane’ came up suddenly and unroofed the straw roofed barn.”
Here in a very real sense was the overland route that mattered most. It didn’t run across prairies or mountains at all. Instead it ran through the imaginations of countless boys like Alva Cady, and there it will endure unchanged and unchanging for as long as dreams last.