“Over the River and Through the Woods”
Because so many will travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, subjecting themselves to the miseries of travel these days, I thought it might be fun to remember how travel used to be before modern transportation. Some years back I came across a wonderful book that told that story so well, that for the first time in some 927 blogs, I have decided to simply prop up a book by the keyboard.
I get all kinds of press releases, but rarely use more than a sentence from them, as I have always prided myself on doing my own writing for these blogs. But every now and again one comes across an absolute perfection. I cannot possibly state it better than Martin Page did in his “The Lost Pleasures of the Great Trains.” Actually, Mr. Page could not have said it so well either, as he carefully pointed out in his preface. He said that he had come across so many wonderful first-person accounts that he “aspired, in compiling this book, to allow them to speak for themselves through its pages as much as possible—to act more as introducer and intermediary than as critical interpreter imposing his own view of events on those who actually experienced them.”
Mr. Page was as good as his word, quoting extensively from people who had traveled at the time and wrote of their adventures. Rail travel in 1870 was a miserable experience for the most part. People were routinely showered with smoke and cinders from those steam engines that look so romantic when we view them in movies depicting the period. The reality of actually traveling on those conveyances was altogether a different story. Nowadays, people often complain about airline food or the lack of same, so that seems a good place to begin our little jaunt into yesteryear. In 1870, the year of most of which follows, there was no on-board dining at all. People ate at eateries of some sort at railroad stations, getting all of fifteen minutes to disembark, eat, and return to the train! And now I will turn it over to Mr. Page. Excepting only the final sentence, everything else that follows is from “The Lost Pleasures of the Great Trains,” by Martin Page, pages 35-41.
An English traveler, J.W. Boddam-Wetham recounted: “As a rule the food is ill-cooked and worse served. Morning, noon and night the same cry greets you: mutton chop, beefsteak, ham and eggs. No change of any sort from the time you leave New York until you arrive in San Francisco. “There are desperate skirmishes with the waiter, who persists in bringing tea when you want coffee and who tells you: ‘It’s all the same, sir.’; the struggles for the bread or sugar and the hateful cry of ‘All aboard’ ringing in your ear and obliging you to rush off, leaving the proprietor counting his money and arranging the victuals for the next batch. It is wonderful how expert the people who keep these places become in collecting money.”
Lest these remarks be dismissed as those of an especially cantankerous individual, let me quote from an editorial of the period, in the New York Times:
“If there is any word in the English language more shamefully misused than another, it is the word refreshment, as applied to the hurry-scurry of eating and drinking at railroad stations. The dreary places in which the painful and unhealthy performances take place are called Refreshment Saloons, but there could not be a more inappropriate designation for such abominations of desolation.
“It is expected that three or four hundred men, women and children, some of whom must, of necessity, be feeble folk and unaccustomed to roughing it, and all of whom have been used to decencies and comforts of orderly homes, can be whirled half a day over a dusty road, with hot cinders flying in their faces; and then when they approach a station dying of weariness, hunger and thirst, longing for an opportunity to bathe their faces at least before partaking of their much-needed refreshments, that they shall rush out helter-skelter into a dismal, long room and dispatch a supper, breakfast or dinner in fifteen minutes.
“The consequences of such savage and unnatural feeding are not reported by telegraph as railroad disasters, but if a faithful account were taken of them we are afraid that they would be found much more serious than any that are caused by the smashing of cars or the breaking of bridges. The traveler who has been riding all night in a dusty and crowded car, unable to sleep, and half suffocated with smoke and foul air, will be suddenly roused from his half-lethargic condition by hearing the scream of the steam whistle, which tells of the near approach to a station; but before the train stops, the door of the car opens and the conductor shouts at the top of his voice: ‘Pogramville—fifteen minutes for breakfast!’
“Here is a prospect for a weary and hungry traveler to whom fifteen minutes would be brief enough time for ablutions. But washing is out of the question, even if all the conveniences were at hand, and he rushes into the ‘saloon’ where he is offered a choice of fried ham and eggs, or rough beefsteak soaked in bad butter, tea and coffee, stale bread; the inevitable custard and pound cake are also at his service; but half the fifteen minutes allowed for breakfast having been lost while waiting for a turn at one of the two washbasins, the bewildered traveler makes a hasty grab at whatever comes within his reach, and hurries back to his seat, to discover before he reaches the end of his journey, that he has laid the foundations for a fit of dyspepsia, which may lead to a disease of the lungs or a fever. As affairs are now arranged, a few days of railroad traveling are sure to end in a fit of sickness of all excepting those who have hearty constitutions, and are accustomed to the very roughest and toughest manner of living.”
One English traveler, C.B. Berry, complained, “We had heard a good deal about the marvelous luxury and convenience of American trains and had been given to understand that a journey in the States was an experience of almost ecstatic bliss: ‘For unparalleled upholstery, the profusion of comfort and civility of employees, our cars are without a compeer; no other cars are a patch upon them.’”
Boarding one of these magnificent conveyances for the first time, Berry recounted how he found “the atmosphere resumed that of a lime kiln, dry and baking, the effect of a large stove at each end, aggravated by the windows’ being closely shut. The car had no division from end to end, a length of some fifty feet, while to light this huge apartment the Pennsylvania Railroad had generously provided two candles swung in glass globes as in the stateroom of a steamer. The dim religious light provided sufficient just to exhibit the extent of the darkness and was well suited to such as might desire sleep, but 6 PM was rather early for a car full of people to seek repose. Then, as if in playful irony, a newsman appeared offering newspapers and magazines for sale. Sleep would have been perilous, since from the lowness of the seat backs the sleeper’s head would have descended to the rear in an uncertain and suicidal manner.”
As for the wonders wrought by George Mortimer Pullman, J.W. Boddam-Whetham reported, “The man who slept in the berth next to mine snored frightfully; in fact the night was made hideous by the unmusical sounds issuing from all parts of the car. The horrors of that first night in a Pullman care are indelibly impressed on my mind. The atmosphere ran a close heat with that of the Black Hole of Calcutta. On my asking the porter why he kept a fire burning all night he said he had to sit up and it would never do for him to catch cold.
“If going to bed is a misery, getting up in the morning is simply agony. If you are late, you have to wait some hours before you can get a turn at the washbasin. If you are early, you have to stand outside on the platform in the dust and smoke until the beds are once more metamorphosed into seats, there being no other place to retire to until the operation is performed.
Another early and dissatisfied Pullman customer was Horace Greely: “There were two high berths to choose from; both wicker trays, ledged in, cushioned and rugged. The one was about a foot and a half higher than the other, so I chose the top one as being nearer the zinc ventilator. I clambered to my perch and found it was like lying on one’s back on a narrow plank. If I turned my back to the car wall, the motion of the train bumped me off my bed altogether and if I turned my face to the wall I felt a horrible sensation of being likely to roll backward into the aisle, so I lay on my back and settled the question. It was like trying to sleep on the back of a runaway horse.”
“You have to go to bed in your boots,” recounted the Viscountess Avon. “Indeed, you cannot undress at all because you cannot shroud yourself behind the curtains without placing yourself in a recumbent position. Besides, what could be done with one’s clothing?”
James Hogan, an Australian writer, related a story of a lady who did disrobe on board a sleeping car:
“Resolving to obtain coolness at any cost, she violently kicked off her blankets, but in doing so, she unfortunately overlooked the fact that her own clothes were stacked near the window that she had thrown open before retiring in order to admit some fresh air. Thus it was that in her struggles to cool herself she had inadvertently kicked her wearing apparel out of the window, with the embarrassing result that next morning she was constrained to make her appearance attired in a hat, stockings and a blanket.”
Travel these days is still an ordeal at times, but I think we can all be glad we no longer travel as they once did.
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