Fantastic History #31: A Time Traveler’s Guide to Train Travel by Wendy Nikel

From the first wooden-railed, horse-drawn tramroads built in England in 1594 to the futuristic bullet trains that speed past at over 160 miles per hour, train travel has played an important role in transportation throughout modern history.

While writing THE CASSANDRA COMPLEX, the third novella in my Place in Time series, I positioned my main character, Cass, on a train headed west, and I knew I’d have to do quite a bit of research into the train travel of the early 20th century in order to get those scenes right.

Fortunately, I live in a place where history was built on trains.

In 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met up at Promontory Summit, Utah, which today is a National Historic Park near where I live. The same year, a train station was built in Ogden, Utah, which is now the Utah State Railroad Museum. These two sites served well as starting points for my research into the history of train travel.

The Golden Spike National Historic Park, where the two pieces of the transcontinental railroad met, gives visitors a glimpse into the building of these railroad lines. In an era before the invention of heavy machinery that could lay hundreds of rails a day, each tie and rail had to be placed by hand and each spike manually hammered into place. During the construction of this railroad, a new record was set: 10 miles of track laid in one day. The vast, desolate landscape near Promontory really emphasizes what a huge effort it was to lay track after track across all the empty and undeveloped places of the late 19th century West.

Although my characters would be traveling to California by a different route nearly fifty years later, they’d still be passing through a lot of undeveloped wilderness on rails built, piece-by-piece, by human hands.

At the Utah State Railroad Museum, I was able to see up-close some of the train engines like those steam and diesel ones which would have pulled the California Limited, which was featured in my story. In 1914, this luxury train ran between Chicago and California, crossing Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona on the way to Los Angeles before traveling northward to San Francisco. It had luxury accommodations, including deluxe sleeping cars, drawing rooms, a smoking room, and a dining car run by the Fred Harvey Company, who had been serving train passengers in their roadhouses since 1876.

In addition to checking out these historical sites and museums, I was also fortunate enough to find a copy of the California Limited’s 1913-1914 brochure in the public domain, digitized by Google. Through this, I was able to not only see the setup and descriptions of the train cars but also the schedule of its route.

With specific details like this, along with what I’d observed myself at the museums and historical sites, I felt like I was traveling back to that time and place – a time when trains were not only the fastest, but also the most fashionable mode of transportation.