Westward by Rail
The New Route to the East

Wm. Fraser, RAE  1835-1905
1871  391 pages

Most likely you are not going to read this book so I’ve tried to give you a flavor of a 19th Century transcontinental train trip was like in 1869 through the eyes of an English visitor.

Wm. Fraser decided on an adventure.  He would travel from England to the United State and then across the continent by the new transcontinental railroad.  First he had to travel by steamship across the ocean but being parochially oriented here at the Donner Summit Historical Society and with space constraints, that will be something you’ll have to read about in the book.

One remark is worth noting. The 1869 journey ended in Jersey City and what greeted the passengers when they first came close to land was not the Statue of Liberty as there is today, but the New York Herald building, “…a towering edifice, imposing in outline and white in colour.”

In New York “the purity of the air is delicious” and “all nationalities seem to have sent their representatives” and the women were “dressed after the latest French mode” but this review should focus closer to home. Suffice it to say that in Mr. Fraser’s mind the “excellencies” of New York outweighed the “drawbacks.”

Mr Fraser embarked on his cross country rail tour.  He had heard of Pullman Palace Cars but was “unprepared for the reality.”  Using one is an “Epoch in a traveler’s life.” “No Royal personage can be more comfortably housed than the occupant of a Pullman Car…”   One of the cars on his train had staterooms, a kitchen with “every appliance necessary for cooking purposes,” water tanks, a wine cellar, an ice-house and orders for five kinds of bread, four kinds of cold meat, six hot dishes, eggs cooked seven ways, seasonable vegetables and fruit are taken.

The train sped along at 30 MPH and reached Chicago which Fraser describes as a vibrant city of 100,000 people “In every quarter hundreds of workmen are labouring at the erection of new houses” and natural obstacles are “confronted and overcome.”  Chicago was a “city of note.”  Then it was across the prairie to connect to the Union Pacific Railroad.

This was another ride on a Pullman Car, “a combined drawing-room, dining-room, and bed-room on wheels.”  The springs “are so well adjusted that the oscillation,… is reduced to a minimum.” Double windows eliminated noise, dust, and cold. The cars “revolutionize train travel.”  During the day one sat in a seat and at night “the seat is folded down…blankets, clean sheets, and pillows are arranged…a curtain is drawn in front and a sleeping berth is thus formed.”

During the trip over the prairies and Rockies Fraser was impressed.  He described the surroundings including the first sight of Indians bedecked with “wisps of hair…trophies…cut from the heads of vanquished foes.”  Fraser said the Indians advancing to civilization was just their adoption of the revolver over the scalping knife and so their “acquaintance is more to be avoided than courted.”  “How to deal with the Indians is one of the most complex among the problems with which the Government of the United States has to deal.”

Moving west the new rail journey “takes on the character of a daring enterprise.”  Stories about the line being constructed too hurriedly, wild Indians attacking passengers and accident are passed around.  Buffalo were not to be seen and Fraser warned of their coming extinction.  Further on the scenery was “tame and uninteresting.”  The limitless plains were broken only by herds of antelope, some Rocky Mountain sheep, and dead oxen left by emigrant wagon trains. 

At the Rockies they had ascended to 8,000 feet and the “purity of the air was extreme” and the lungs had difficulty becoming “fully inflated.”

A large portion of the book, seven chapters covers Salt Lake City and the Mormons. He was not impressed.  “The territory of Utah is a scandal to America” and “The Mormons are selfish, as well as very illogical.”

Not far from Salt Lake City the train reached Promontory.  When Fraser arrived they had not yet settled the point of junction for the CPRR and the UPRR so the companies were compromising with a station at Promontory.  Each company had been anxious to earn as much of the Government subsidy as possible they so they’d “carried their respective lines as far as an hundred miles to the east and west of Promontory.”  “These unfinished roadways are still to be seen side by side of the completed line.” 

Passengers had to change trains at Promontory, going from UPRR trains to CPRR trains to continue on to California.  They moved their luggage, got new sleeping berths and got a meal.  They also had time to stroll through the town and see the sights in the town made “partly from canvas of wood.”  The sights were less than picturesque although one wooden dwelling that attracted notice had muslin curtains “within the window.”  That house had “two or three smiling females” ready to welcome all who would enter.  It turns out that was a “characteristic of all these rude settlements… the abode of women with few scruples to overcome and no characters to lose…”  There were many saloons but only one gambling “hell.”

To help the town economy agents were sent up the rail lines to take the trains back to Promontory.  On the trip they would talk to the passengers and upon arrival at Promontory the agents would take their new friends to try their luck.  That gambling hall was an open-air affair only a few yards from the rail line.  Then Fraser described 3 Card Monte and how it was conducted to the disadvantage of the train travelers. Fraser said the game could be considered perfectly fair if fairness consisted of uniform winning on one side and uniform losing on the other.

Unfortunately for Fraser the travel by Pullman was over upon changing to the CPRR.  Their “silver palace cars” were very inferior.  The Pullman had a conductor and “coloured servants.”   to wait on passengers.  The CPRR cars had only a “coloured man” who was in charge and was attendant.  Service was bad on the CPRR but the condition of its rails was vastly superior to the UPRR.

One little story is interesting.  Everyone knows of the Golden Spike at Promontory in 1869 when the railroad was connected east to west. The spike was removed of course but souvenir hunters “hacked the sleeper [tie] in the course of a few minutes.”  They attacked the “last rail with a vigour  which had the effect of rendering it worthless.”  The sleeper had to be replaced three times and the rail once in the course of a week.

Fraser then describes Elko, the Chinese, prejudice.  Americans were very caste conscious he said, a “thinly disguised aristocracy of birth.”  The Comstock Lode and riches of Nevada descriptions of Nevada and a mine

After a couple of hundred miles of more monotonous scenery after leaving Elko, it was across the Sierra Nevadas.  The train ran into a herd of cattle while crossing Nevada and the engine derailed.  It took eight hours to get going again, so while they waited the passengers made use of the beef then lying alongside the rail and the sage brush nearby.

It took two engines to haul the train up the Sierra and there Fraser found wooden sheds of about a thousand feet long to protect against snow slides.  Unfortunately the sheds  interrupted “the view of some of the most romantic scenery on the line.”  This was just the beginning of snowsheds.  They would eventually extend to 40 miles of interrupted scenery.

Fraser was taken with the Sierra scenery. “The glimpses one gets are just sufficient to tantalize and not prolonged enough to satisfy.  The view of Donner Lake is the most charming of them all.”  Above Summit Station “the peaks of the mountains tower cloudwards. The scene is one of unprecedented grandeur.”

Done with the Sierra the train continued to Sacramento and then San Francisco.  Here Fraser was introduced to some charming California customs such as “drink as often as possible.” He describes Sacramento in 1869 and excerpts speeches, descriptions of culture and the improvement of life in town since the Gold Rush.

Fraser took a steam ship to San Francisco and gives an interesting description of that travel mode.  On the way he describes the effects of the then current hydraulic mining and the “soil that will grow anything.”

Then he arrived in “San Francisco a city of wonders,… it seemed to my eyes a city of magic, such a city as Aladdin might have ordered the genii to create in order to astonish and dazzle the spectator.”

“If this spectacle be poetry the landing is prose. The din and bustle soon recall the errant mind
from aerial flights of fancy to the harsh realities of terrestrial life. A Babel of tongues rises from the
crowded landing-stage as soon as the steamer has been moored. Hardly has the passenger set foot
on shore than he becomes the prey of  men intent upon earning a gratuity by doing, or professing to
render, him a service. The importunities of the touters, porters, and cabmen are not only quite as
tormenting as those of their brethren at Calais or Boulogne,…”

He then describes the city, the Vigilance Committee, the Bay as a center of trade, the labor shortage, the value of money,  prices, the hills, manufactory, the many cultures, wines (not “palatable and pleasant…disagreeable and disappointing”), the profusion of food in the markets, the Chinese, the character of Californians,   and more.

Fraser liked his trip so much he took the train back to the east coast.

Fraser’s book about his trip is a window on the 19th Century America and his commentary about the scenery, Indians, Mormons, Californians, prejudice is interesting as is his description of 19th Century train travel including the recovery from a derailment due to a herd of cattle.   It can get a bit tedious to the modern reader but the tedium can be resolved by putting the book down or skimming.

Westward by Rail is available in libraries but more easily on the internet in various forms. I read a PDF version


Upon Reaching the Sierra
“the wearying sight of plains covered with alkali and sage-brush was exchanged for picturesque views of mountain slopes, adorned with branching pine trees, and diversified with foaming torrents.  This was a gratifying relief…”

Coming down the Mountains to California
But a few hours ago we were passing through a region in which desolation reigned supreme ; a region of sage brush and alkali dust, of bitter water and unkindly skies. Still more recently the icy winds of the snow-crowned Sierras had chilled us to the bone. The transition was sudden and the transformation magical. The sun descended in a flood of glory towards the Pacific Ocean, while the train was spinning down the ringing grooves of the mountains.  The canopy of azure overhead, unflecked by a cloud and spangled with myriads of brilliant stars, surpassed in loveliness the brightest and most serene sky which ever enchanted the dweller on the  luxuriant shores of the blue Mediterranean. No Italian air was ever more balmy, nor evening breeze through vineyard or olive grove more grateful to the senses than the soft wind which, tempered by the coolness of the distant ocean and odorous with the rich perfumes of the neighbouring plains, now fanned our cheeks and gave a fresh zest to life.”

From the Sierra Summit to Sacramento
“The velocity with which the train rushed down this incline, and the suddenness with which it wheeled round the curves, produced a sensation which cannot be reproduce in words…  The speed…seemed terrific.  The axle=boxes smoked with the friction, and the odour of burning wood pervaded the cars.  The wheels were nearly red hot.  In the darkness of the night they resembled discs of flame.”