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Trains in the American Culture

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At right, the Phoenix Line "Safety Coaches" advertised a travel time between Baltimore and Washington of just 5 hours. This was overland travel in style before railroads covered the routes. Travel by train became very popular very quickly.

By the 1870's and 80's travel from one train station to another had become a way of life.

Above in the header image, an 1899 poster advertising Gorton's original New Orleans Minstrels uses a train as a natural backdrop, symbolizing the arrival of a great show in your town. Many performance groups took their shows across the country.
Well into the 20th Century, politicians running for office were famous for giving campaign speeches from the back of a train as it stopped in town after town across the state or across the country.
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Above: The Grand Saloon of the Palace Steamer Drew, a luxury paddle wheel steamer with service between New York and Albany. Right: An ad illustrating the luxury of a Pullman dining car of the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad with service to Indianapolis, Chicago, Dayton, Toledo, and Detroit. Click on image to enlarge.
Pullman Dining Car

A New Era of Travel

With railroads, not only could Americans travel great distances with relative ease, they could do it in comfort and style. It was a far cry from long weeks on woodland trails and dusty roads in horse-drawn wagons. Transportation fueled a strong national economy and middle class. The Palace Steamer Drew advertised: "Leave New York Daily at 6:00 PM Connecting at Albany with express trains for Saratoga, Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, Montreal and points north and west." The famous Pullman dining cars made traveling like visiting a fine restaurant.
Trains moving massive amounts of cargo as well as people ran around the clock, and rail yards at major stations became crowded with multiple tracks.
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Click on map to enlarge.
Above: The famous Sourbeck House Hotel in Alliance, Ohio, featured in a late 19th Century lithograph. Alliance was not much of a town before the Cleveland and Wellsville railroad reached the town in 1851. Shortly after that, the Ohilo and Pennsylvania Railroad connected Pittsburgh and the Ohio River. The two railroads formed an intersection at Alliance Connecting the great riverboat traffic on the Ohio in Pittsburgh with Cleveland on the Lake Erie, and a town grew up around the train depot. In 1852 Colonel Daniel Sourbeck took over a hotel on the north side of the track. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln dined at the hotel on his way to his inauguration. The hotel burned in 1863, and the new hotel made of brick (shown above) became a famous for its dining and accommodations. Union Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan are said to have stayed there.

Left: This 1862 Railroad map shows Alliance centrally located between Cleveland to the northwest and Pittsburgh to the southeast. By 1862, railroads connected hundreds of towns in the easter half of the U.S. The presence of a railroad depot was a reason for a town to grow.
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The theatrical district of Richmond, Virginia in the early 1920's at time when streetcars had been improved and become commonplace in American cities. Photo card by Louis Kaufmann & Sons, Baltimore, courtesy of the James Branch Cabell library at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Electric Power for City Strets

Despite the ubiquitous presence of railroads connecting American cities and towns, steam engines were not used in cities. Trolleys were a popular for form of intown transportation but they were pulled by horses. Cities were becoming increasingly civilized and modern, and while the horses did not generate massive amounts of steam and smoke, they did lay trails of manure along the tracks, and they congested the busy streets. A solution was needed for better transit systems.

In 1884, a brilliant 27-year-old engineer named Frank Julien Sprague left his job with Thomas Edison to start the Sprague Railway & Motor Company. Within 2 years his company had made significant improvements to the electric motor, and he convinced the city of Richmond, Virginia to hire him to build an electric trolley system. Over 6o communities in the U.S and Europe had tried and failed. It was no easy task. The city would have to have an electric generation plant and transmit the power along city streets without electrocuting pedestrians. In February,1888, the Richmond Union Passenger Railway began operation using overhead wires, and successfully navigating hills with a grade of more than 10%. Railway men from Boston saw this operation, and within a year, Boston too had an operating electric trolley system. Just 7 years later, 11,000 miles of streetcar track crisscrossed American cities, and shortly after the turn of the century, horse-dawn trolleys had become a thing of the past.
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© 2019 Phil Dickinson
Middletown, RI 401-847-2020

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