The Trials and Travails of Victorian Train Travel

Today’s guest is Bob Brooke. He is an avid collector of antiques and collectibles and has written about them. His articles have appeared in many antiques and consumer publications, including British Heritage, AntiqueWeek, American Antiquities Journal, and Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine, and he has published two books. Today, he has chosen to write on Victorian era train travel. Here is his post:

On the warm morning of August 27, 1831, a throng of people flocked to Lydius Street in Albany, New York. They had come to see the new railroad train. The odd-looking engine, the “De Witt Clinton,” stood in front of a tender containing water and fuel, followed by three passenger cars, made from the bodies of stagecoaches fastened on special railroad wheels and several flat cars to hold luggage. All along the 17 miles to Schenectady, New York,  farmers and their families gathered to see this new spectacle.

Local hotels had sold tickets to ride the train. As passengers climbed into the carriages and took their seats, a conductor, standing on a platform outside each coach, collected the tickets, then climbed to a seat on the tender and blew a horn. The engine gave a great jerk, and the crowd cheered.

According to an eye-witness account published in the Albany Argus on August 27, 1831:

“The engine performed the entire route in less than one hour, including stoppages, and on a part of the road its speed was at the rate of thirty miles an hour.”

The train made the return journey from Schenectady to Albany in 38 minutes, much to the delight of its promoter.

Six years earlier on September 27, 1825, English passengers road aboard a “goods” or freight train from Stockton to Darlington, a distance of twelve miles. Historians regard this as the first train to carry passengers. A month later the Stockton and Darlington Railroad added a daily “coach” car, modeled after a stagecoach.  It carried six passengers inside and fifteen to twenty outside. The fare was one shilling. The railroad allowed each passenger fourteen pounds of baggage.

An early engraving showing a Victorian baggage room with passengers picking through the luggage. (Catskill Archives)

The relative speed and ability to travel regardless of the weather made rail travel attractive to travelers and businesses. But unlike its European counterparts, American railroads developed  a passenger car with one compartment, containing an aisle down the middle. This ran on two trucks containing four wheels each, making it easier to navigate sharp curves.

Though riding the early rails was a step above the canal boat and stagecoach, rail travel left a lot to be desired. The floor of the car lay low and flat, and passengers sat jammed into narrow seats with stiff backs, so they felt every bump. Winter travel was especially difficult.

A stove at each end provided heat to those nearest to it, but those seated in the middle of the car nearly froze. And with little ventilation, all nearly suffocated from carbon monoxide. Tallow candles furnished a “dim religious light,” and emitted a putrid odor. Dust suffocated parched passengers in dry weather since the windows had no screens. And since there were no adequate spark arresters on the engine, passengers at the end of their journey looked as if they had spent the day in a blacksmith shop.

With hard springs, the movement of cars over poorly laid track jolted passengers and rattled  windows, making conversation a luxury. Early trains might as well not have had brakes, for those they did have were clumsy and of little use.

Passengers also hadn’t heard of baggage checks and coupon-tickets. Long trips had to be made over lines composed of a number of short independent railways; and at the terminus of each passengers had to transfer, purchase another ticket, personally pick out their baggage – often on an uncovered platform in inclement weather – then take their chances finding a seat in the connecting train.

Travel by rail wasn’t without it’s dangers. Railroad builders cut the ends of the flat-bar rails diagonally, so that when they laid them down, they would lap and form a smoother joint. Occasionally, the spikes came loose and the end of the rail with its sharp point rose high enough for the wheel to run under it, rip it loose, and send the pointed end through the floor of the car. Passenger’s called this a “snake’s head,” and the unlucky person sitting over it was likely to be impaled against the roof.

Every year showed progress in perfecting the comforts and safety of railway cars. Air brakes allowed trains to be stopped in an incredibly short time with the help of the vacuum-brake which powered the brakes exhausting the air. So passengers waiting on station platforms were often in danger.

The means of warning passengers against standing on train platforms were often ingenious. On a New Jersey railroad, a picture, painted on the car door, featured a new grave, with a tombstone that read, “Sacred to the memory of the man who had stood on a platform.”

The introduction of a bell-cord running through the train enabled passengers to communicate promptly with the engineer, signaling him in case of danger. However, Europeans couldn’t understand why passengers didn’t tamper with it and and how they could resist the temptation to give false signals by means of it.

Steamboats afforded the greatest competition to the early railroads. They had made great progress offering passengers luxurious comforts – berths to sleep in, meals served in spacious cabins, and entertainment on board. To compete, the railroads had to make riding their trains more comfortable.

Early trains carried passengers for relatively short distances, so sleeping arrangements weren’t necessary. But as the distances became longer, a means of providing a place to sleep on board became a prime concern. The Cumberland Valley Railroad of Pennsylvania, running between Harrisburg and Chambersburg — a distance of fifty-four miles — first attempted to furnish passengers with an onboard place to sleep. During the winter, east-bound passengers arrived exhausted at Chambersburg late at night by stagecoach, after a fatiguing trip over the mountains. Since many wished to continue their journey to Harrisburg so they could catch the morning train for Philadelphia, it became imperative to furnish onboard sleeping accommodations. The railroad’s owners divided a passenger car into four sections using transverse partitions. Each section contained three berths – lower, middle, and upper. The car ran from the winter of 1836-37 to 1848 when they abandoned it.

In 1858, George M. Pullman made a trip to Chicago, Illinois, from Buffalo, New York, aboard the Lake Shore Railroad. A new sleeping car, attached to this train, was making its first trip. Pullman stepped in to take a look at it and decided to spend the night in one of its berths. After being continuously tossed about, he sought refuge on a seat in the end of the car. He thought about his experience and figured that in a country of great distances like the United States, railroads should offer passengers cars easily convertible into comfortable and convenient day or night coaches, supplied with appointments similar to those aboard steamboats.

After experimenting for a time, he altered some regular passenger cars on the Chicago & Alton Railroad in 1859 and converted them into sleeping cars. One night, after they had made a few trips on the line between Chicago and St. Louis, a tall man entered one of the cars while Pullman was aboard, and after asking a some questions about his invention, said he’d like to try it for himself and climbed in an upper berth. The man was Abraham Lincoln.

In 1864, Pullman perfected his plans for a car which he felt was a marked and radical improvement from previous sleeping cars. He built it in a shed in the yard of the Chicago & Alton Railroad at a cost of $18,000 – four times the cost of a sleeping car at that time – and named it the ” Pioneer.”

The Pioneer had improved trucks and a raised deck, and Pullman built it a foot wider and two and a half feet higher than any car then in service. He thought this necessary to introduce a hinged upper berth, which, when fastened up, formed a recess behind it for stowing the necessary bedding in daytime. Before that the mattresses had been piled in one end of the car and had to be dragged through the aisle when needed. Pullman realized the dimensions of the railroad bridges and station platforms wouldn’t allow the car to pass over the line, but he believed that an attractive car, constructed upon correct principles, would find its way into service against all obstacles. And so it did.

This Pullman sleeper on a vestibuled train allowed passengers traveling long distances to move freely about the train. (Pullman Car Co.)

With the tremendous success of the sleeping car, railroads next introduced parlor or drawing-room cars for day runs, which added greatly to the luxury of travel, enabling passengers to secure seats in advance, and enjoy many comforts which weren’t found in ordinary cars. Eventually, these became known as “palace” cars and railroads included them as an essential part of their equipment. The Wagner Car Company of New York was one of the first to furnish them.

Pullman’s parlor car was also known as a “palace car” because of its luxurious furnishings. (Pullman Car Co.)

After introducing sleeping and luxurious parlor cars, the railroads naturally turned to fulfilling the demand for serving meals on their trains. Why should a train stop at a station for meals any more than a steamboat should tie up to a wharf for the same purpose? So the Pullman Car Company introduced the hotel car — essentially a sleeping-car with a kitchen and pantries in one end and portable tables which could be placed between the seats of each section and upon which meals could be conveniently served. Pullman named his first hotel car the  “President,” and put it into service on the Great Western Railway of Canada in 1867.

But that still wasn’t enough to supply the wants of the growing number of railway passengers. So the dining car came next. A complete restaurant, with a large kitchen and pantries at one end and the main body of the car fitted up as a dining room, it offered a place in which all the passengers in the train could take their meals comfortably. Pullman named his first dining car the “Delmonico,” which began service in 1868 on the Chicago & Alton Railroad.

Passengers took their meals in dining cars like this one aboard the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy R.R. in the mid-1880s. (Library of Congress)

Improvements in rolling stock had reduced the jerking, jolting, and oscillation of the cars. Plus the rail beds had been properly ditched, drained, and ballasted with broken stone or gravel, the dust overcome, the sparks arrested, so cleanliness had at last been made possible on a railway train.

And that left one major problem to the be solved — heating the cars. This came about through the invention of a method for circulating hot water from the boiler of the locomotive through pipes running near the floor of the cars. Not only did passengers now have warm feet, but the loss of life from train fires originating from stoves had been halted. However, heating a detached car was still a problem until the discovery of electricity.

With the introduction of the dining car came the concept of the continuous train. This necessitated that passengers had to walk from one car to another across platforms to get to the parlor or dining cars while the train was in motion, an act that they had been cautioned against. The railroads realized they had to come up with a solution to the problem if the continuous train concept were to be successful, particularly for limited express trains.   

Crude attempts had been made as early as 1852 when inventors took out patents for devices using diaphragms of canvas to connect adjoining cars and form a passageway between them. Used mainly for ventilation on the Naugatuck Railroad, in Connecticut in 1857, they didn’t work well and the railroad soon abandoned them.

Once again Pullman devised a system not only for constructing continuous trains but also for providing sufficient flexibility in the connecting passageways to allow for the motion of the train around curves. His efforts in 1886 resulted in what’s now known as the “vestibuled” train.

Patented in 1887, this invention succeeded not only in supplying the means of constructing a perfectly enclosed vestibule of handsome architectural appearance between the cars but also accomplished the introduction of a safety device in case of collision.

The elastic diaphragms, attached to the ends of the cars, had steel frames. Powerful springs pressed their faces firmly against each other, creating a friction which held them in position, thus preventing the oscillation of the cars and furnishing a buffer extending from the platform to the roof., This prevented one platform “riding” another, producing telescoping in case of collision.

The first vestibuled trains went into service on the Pennsylvania Railroad in June, 1886, and other railroad companies soon followed. The new vestibuled limited trains contained several sleeping cars, a dining car, and a smoking car, complete with a library, desks and writing materials, a bathroom and a barber shop. With free circulation of air throughout the train, the cars opening into each other, the electric light, the many other increased comforts and conveniences, trains became a safe and luxurious way to travel.

But baggage presented a problem early on. Originally, railways allowed passengers to pick out their baggage at their destination, resulting in a lack of accountability which led to much confusion, frequent losses, and heavy claims against the railroads. The solution lay in the  introduction of a system known as “checking.” A clerk attached a metal disk, bearing a number and the destination of the bag, to each article and gave a duplicate to the owner, which acted as a receipt. Passengers then presented these receipts to clerks at their destinations to claim their bags.

Railways soon united in arranging for through checks which when attached to baggage would insure its being sent safely to distant points over lines composed of many connecting rail lines. The check system led to the introduction of another marked convenience in the handling of baggage–the baggage express or transfer company. One of its agents checked trunks at the passenger’s own house and hauled them to the train. Another agent would take up the checks aboard the train as it neared its destination and see to it that the baggage was delivered to the correct address.

Coupon tickets covering trips over several different railways saved passengers from purchasing separate tickets from several railroads over which they had to pass. Their introduction necessitated an agreement among the principal railroads and the adoption of an extensive system of accountability for the purpose of making settlements of the amounts represented by the coupons.

With all these conveniences and the growth of the rail lines, passengers often found themselves in unfamiliar territory. Conspicuous clock faces stood in the stations with their hands set to the hour at which the next train was to depart, sign boards displayed with horizontal slats the stations at which departing trains would stop, and employees called out necessary information and directed passengers to the proper entrances, exits, and trains. Larger passenger stations included a  “Bureau of Information,” in which a railroad employee answers questions about rail routes.

Due to a dramatic increase in rail travel, this train station in York, England, had to also be expanded.

By the turn of the century and the end of the Victorian Era, rail travel was the prime means of short and long distance travel in the United States and Europe and the days of those early uncomfortable trains were a distant memory. 

More on Bob Brooke

Bob’s two books on antiques are How to Start Your Own Antiques Business in Your Home and Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit, both from Globe Pequot Press. To learn more about Bob and his fantastic web site about antiques, click here. If you are interested in following Bob on twitter, click here. If you’re into Instagram Bob can be found at the antiquesalmanac.

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