Excursion to the Pacific: Rail Travel Then and Now

By Andrea Cronin, Reader Services


On 23 May 1870, the first transcontinental train left Boston for San Francisco. Here are a few of George Gordon Byron DeWolfe’s words celebrating its departure, as captured on a broadside held by the MHS:

The train left St. James Park in the “Hub,” also known as Boston, on a Monday morning at a quarter past nine o’clock. The eight-car train arrived in San Francisco on Saturday, 28 May, but the entire trip lasted approximately 39 days. The group returned to Boston on 2 July 1870.

What a train ride! Consider it against modern rail travel. In the present, you can travel via train from Boston to San Francisco in approximately 86 hours (3.5 days), which excludes wait time at stations. Boston-San Francisco is approximately 3,000 miles or a 50-hour drive via car. A 6-day journey in 1870 – that’s pretty good timing for the first transcontinental train! Some of you readers are, no doubt, thinking, “Why do that now when you can just fly?”

But there is something so captivating about trains. George Pullman, inventor of the Pullman sleeping railcar, designed this eight-car train for the journey. The train cars included the following: a baggage car, a smoking car, two commissary cars (the St. Charles and the St. Cloud), two hotel and drawing room cars (the Revere and the Arlington), and two saloon cars (the Palmyra and the Marquetta). Note to Amtrak: start naming the train cars things like Revere, Arlington, Boylston, Fenway, etc. Those names are much more appealing than train car no. 2106. The café car could be named Batali, Lagasse, or Oliver! Although that may be a little misleading; microwaved hot dogs are not haute cuisine. This train was clearly finely-made and comfortable for travel, as DeWolfe mentions.

So who was aboard this tricked-out train? Members of the Boston Board of Trade and their families made this journey, spending a few weeks in California. They planned to visit Yosemite National Park, and the itinerary for the return journey included  stops in Salt Lake, Omaha, Chicago, and Niagara. Among the families on board were well-known names in the Boston area like Peabody, Forbes, Houghton, Rice, Prentiss, Dana, Farnsworth, Hunnewell, Warren, and many more. The list of passengers on the broadside suggests approximately 125 persons traveled on this train. If that sounds a little crowded to you, just think of the commuter rail in rush hour. Eight cars for 125 people sounds spacious in comparison.

If you’d like to find out more about this particular journey, transcontinental railways, or rail travel in Massachusetts, please visit our online catalog, ABIGAIL. The broadside shown here is the “Excursion to the Pacific” by George G. B. DeWolfe. Plan a visit to the library to view it in person.