They Weren't All Pullman Cars

Monday, July 11, 2011

I recently discovered a website with life stories gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in 1936-1940, mostly through interviews with the people who lived the stories. I'll spend the next several weeks sharing some of the more interesting ones.

Did you know that George Pullman's sleepers weren't the only ones on the tracks? Here is an account of traveling from Kansas to California in a family tourist coach. The narrator is Mrs. Hortense Watkins of Portland, Oregon.

I am hardly what you would call a pioneer, since it was only as far back as 1883 that I came to Oregon, and not in a covered wagon. But even the way I came with my four children is something of a day that is no more. We came from Kansas to Oregon by way of California, in what was known as a family tourist coach. It took ten days at that time from Kansas to California. I have forgotten just what the railway fare was, but I do remember that children under twelve were half fare, and in some manner I had an extra half. So when a fellow passenger who had six children and not tickets enough to go around found herself in a quandary after boarding the train, I took the surplus youngster on with my extra half. Every time we had a new conductor he would say something about how little that child resembled the rest of my brood, for he was tow-headed and all of mine were dark. We had quite a time, but finally got through all right, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the poor woman and all her six reached their destination.
Those tourist cars weren't very pleasant traveling, but I guess they were a lot better than six months of oxen and wagon at that. We had to furnish our own bedding, even the mattresses, which were made of ticking filled with straw, so they could be thrown away at the end. We had to furnish our own food too. There was a stove in the corner of one end, where we women cooked. I have forgotten just how many were in the car, but I do remember there were sixteen children, so you can imagine the hubbub. This sounds like an old fashioned story, but it's true. The train went so slowly in places that once when one of the men had his hat blow off, he jumped off, caught his hat and got on the train again without stopping. There were two old men that I cooked for. One of them, who wore a tall, silk, stovepipe hat, had his overcoat stolen just before he got on the train, so I loaned him a shawl, which he wore all the time. We had our own brooms, with which we had to sweep the car too. I don't think Heaven can look more beautiful to me than Southern California, when we finally got there.

Not the most comfortable trip, but it sounds a lot better than traveling by covered wagon. And Mrs. Watkins was one of the lucky ones. Her husband was a lawyer, and they could afford the fare to ride in a tourist car.

But it was nothing like a Pullman.

NOTE: The photograph is from the Denver Public Library Collection (Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library) and was taken by H.S. Poley sometime between 1895 and 1900.

The Federal Writers' Project interviews are government-created documents and are available on the Library of Congress' website. WPA Life Histories. The quoted passage is from "Early Railroad Travel," Item 18 of 81 in the Oregon section of the American Life History manuscripts.

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