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What Was It Like to Ride the Transcontinental Railroad?

The swift, often comfortable ride on the Transcontinental Railroad opened up the American West to new settlement.

Velvet cushions and gilt-framed mirrors. Feasts of antelope, trout, berries and Champagne. In 1869, a New York Times reporter experienced the ultimate in luxury—and he did so not in the parlor of a Gilded Age magnate, but on a train headed from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, California.

Just a few years before, the author would have had to rely on a bumpy stagecoach or a covered wagon to tackle a journey that took months. Now, he was gliding along the rails, passing by the varied scenery of the American West while dining, sleeping and relaxing.

The ride was “not only tolerable but comfortable, and not only comfortable but a perpetual delight,” he wrote. “At the end of our journey [we] found ourselves not only wholly free from fatigue, but completely rehabilitated in body and spirits. Were we very far from wrong if we voted the Pacific Railroad a success?”

The author was just one of the thousands of people who flocked to the Transcontinental Railroad beginning in 1869. The railroad, which stretched nearly 2,000 miles between Iowa, Nebraska and California, reduced travel time across the West from about six months by wagon or 25 days by stagecoach to just four days. And for the travelers who tried out the new transportation route, the Transcontinental Railroad represented both the height of modern technology and the tempting possibility of unrestricted travel.

Railroads Passed Through ‘Untouched’ Indigenous Land

The first passenger train on the line took 102 hours to travel from Omaha, Nebraska to San Francisco, and a first-class ticket cost $134.50—the equivalent of about $2,700 today. It traveled what was known as the Overland Route, threading its way through prairies, mountains and deserts that had been nearly impassable just years before.

Passengers were impressed by the landscape’s beauty and seeming desolation. “For hundreds of miles we saw no other persons except now and then a station with a few hovels about it,” wrote Celia Cooley Graves, a Massachusetts woman who took the Overland Route to San Francisco in 1875.

At the time, the areas through which the train had been built were not yet home to large numbers of white settlers. In fact, millions of acres of the land the new railroad traversed had belonged to Indigenous people—but the U.S. Congress had granted the land to railroad companies.

For many Native nations, the railroads represented an unwelcome intrusion as they soon introduced a wave of white settlement. The trains provided supplies for those relocating from the East and allowed people with means to use the railroad instead of covered wagons.