Earlier this month, May 10th to be exact, was the 145th anniversary of the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit in Utah, uniting the East and the West via the first transcontinental railroad in the United States (May 10, 1869).
For our young nation, that was a huge accomplishment. The trip that pioneers had made from Missouri to Oregon in the 1840’s took many months and was fraught with danger (disease, accidents, Indians, etc.). With the completion of the railroad, the country could be crossed in mere days and with relative ease.
Begun in 1863, the transcontinental railroad was built by the Western Pacific (Oakland to Sacramento), the Central Pacific (Sacramento to Promontory Summit), and the Union Pacific (Council Bluffs, Iowa to Promontory Summit). The latter two railroad companies competed to see who could complete the most track. No one knew exactly where the two railroads would meet until very close to the end. In the final days, crews for both railroads set amazing records of number of track laid per day.
In the early 1800’s, it was believed it would take 100 generations to populate the land between the Missouri River and the San Francisco Bay. It took only five generations. And the railroad had a great deal to do with that.
The “golden age” of rail travel in America was the period between 1900 and the late 1940’s. During those years, most travel was done by train and some of it in luxury. After 1946, the airlines became a serious challenge to rail travel. By the 1950’s, travel by rail was in its twilight. And by the 1960’s, schedules had been drastically curtailed. Traveling by train would never be the same again.
The Oregon Trail passes right through Boise. I don’t have to go far afield to see the ruts that the passing wagon wheels carved into the earth. The first transcontinental railroad stayed pretty close to the Oregon Trail until it got to Utah. Then it turned toward California and San Francisco. But before the turn of the century, in the 1890’s, rails were laid across southern Idaho, following that last segment of the Oregon Trail, bringing the train through the place I call home.
When I was ten years old, my family (mother, grandmother, brother, and I) took a vacation by train through Oregon and Washington. That’s the gorgeous, historic Boise Depot at left, where all train travel out of Boise began. I thought it was wonderful! I especially liked to sit up in the observation car (double decker) and watch the passing countryside with a 360 degree view.
When my daughters were close to the same age (ten and twelve), we took the train to Portland in a major snowstorm to spend Christmas with my brother and his family. I loved that trip too!
Most people who travel by rail today do it as commuters. Passenger trains no longer follow the rails from Salt Lake up to Portland. Only freight trains blow their whistles across southern Idaho.
And who wants to take days to cross the country when it can be done in hours by air? To be honest, me! Not every trip, of course, but just once would be grand. The history lover in me wishes the golden age of rail travel had lasted just a little longer.
What “golden age” did you miss and wish you could experience?
PS My new novel, The Heart’s Pursuit, is currently on a blog tour and there’s a giveaway attached to it. Check it out on the Events & Giveaways page. (See the menu at the top of any page.)