INTRODUCTION: AGENTS OF TRANSFORMATION
For two weeks in deep summer, westbound passengers on a Union Pacific train encountered a tubercular Scot whose conversation, dripping with literary grandiloquence, had earned him the nickname "Shakespeare." Pale, thin, and wracked by coughing fits, he seemed not long for this world. Generally he could be found seated at one end of a car, propping open the door with his foot as though hoping the rush of air might soothe his unremitting fever.
It was 1879, a mere decade after the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines had met at Promontory Summit in what was then Utah Territory, completing the first transcontinental railroad. The passenger was Robert Louis Stevenson, at twenty-eight still several years shy of the worldwide fame he would acquire with the publication of 'Treasure Island' in 1883 and Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886. An object of pity among his fellow travelers and occasional abuse by railroad personnel, he would mine the journey for an account of rail travel as seen from the lower depths, published in 1892 as Across the Plains.
Stevenson's fellow travelers were emigrants, lured west by lavish propaganda in which the railroads promised them access to the bounty of the plains and the golden riches of distant California. According to these reports, the climates of Minnesota and Montana were endowed with "the power of healing any malady." The Northern Pacific declared that "prosperity, freedom, independence, manhood in its highest sense, peace of mind and all the comforts and luxuries of life are awaiting you." The Union Pacific predicted that "a $50 lot may prove a $5,000 investment."
The first thing Stevenson noticed upon embarking on his transcontinental trip was the contempt with which railroad personnel treated the emigrants (not excepting himself). They herded the passengers like cattle into plain wooden cars that had all the creature comforts of packing crates, equipped with benches too short to accommodate anyone but a small child, and lamps that "shed but a dying glimmer even while they burned." Dining cars still being almost unknown on American railways, the train would stop at intervals for the travelers to take their meals at trackside hostels—and often stole away without even a whistle blast of warning. "You had to keep an eye upon it even while you ate," Stevenson reported.
Stevenson described his companions as "mostly lumpish fellows, silent and noisy, a common combination." Their conversation "ran upon hard times, short commons [the scarcity of food, water, land for farming], and hope that moves ever westward." The one sentiment they all seemed to share, which Stevenson judged "the most stupid and the worst," was scorn for the Chinese passengers, who were sequestered in their own car. Stevenson's compatriots, mostly immigrants of European descent like himself, harbored the conviction that "it was the Chinese waggon, and that alone, which stank." In truth, he wrote, as the train made its way west the atmosphere in the others became steadily more rank—the Chinese car was the exception, "and notably the freshest of the three."
Along the way there were indications that for the passengers, the benefits of the westbound journey might fall short of what they had been promised: Trains as crowded as their own were passing them, headed back East. At every platform where they met, eastbound passengers cried to them through the windows "in a kind of wailing chorus, to 'Come back.' On the plains of Nebraska, in the mountains of Wyoming, it was still the same cry, and dismal to my heart, 'Come back!'"
But there was to be no turning back, for the railroads had already etched themselves into the American landscape and American culture.
That had become clear after the momentous meeting at Promontory. In 1871 Charles Francis Adams Jr., then America's most perceptive analyst of this new industry, had described the transformation underway. "Here," he wrote, "is an enormous, an incalculable force practically let loose suddenly upon mankind."
A muckraking journalist and politician, the grandson of one US president and great-grandson of another, Adams perceived that the burgeoning industry would exercise "all sorts of influences, social, moral and political; precipitating upon us novel problems which demand immediate solution; banishing the old before the new is half matured to replace it; bringing the nations into close contact before yet the antipathies of race have begun to be eradicated; giving us a history full of changing fortunes and rich in dramatic episodes." The railroad, he concluded, would be "the most tremendous and far-reaching engine of social change which has ever blessed or cursed mankind."
As Adams foretold, the railroad industry's influence would penetrate every corner of American life, bringing ever more change to a country that, at the moment when the driving of a ceremonial golden spike marked the transcontinental railroad's completion, was still struggling to come to terms with the wrenching events of the Civil War.