The Transcontinental Railroad was the ultimate luxury ~ for some
First class passengers boarding the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1870s stepped into an elegant, extravagant world of dark, polished woods, velvet upholstery, and gilt-framed mirrors in palace Pullman cars, slept in private rooms, and enjoyed opulent “feasts of antelope, trout, berries and Champagne,” describes History.com, and they were served by deferential uniformed waiters and porters. Still hungry? Perhaps a dish of ice cream or slice of a tart Apricot Charlotte for dessert.
Images: menu from the International Wine & Food Society, dining car from History.com, “What was it like to ride the Transcontinental Railroad”, Apricot Charlotte from Black Pepper Chef, WordPress
First class travel also afforded passengers the leisure and comfort to view spectacular and varied scenery with vistas stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction. And this was available for the first class price of about $130 at the time, a comparable $2700 today some sources say.
My historical fiction novel Cat’s Cafe portrays a couple like so many others who decided to leave the established East and travel west by train to a new life. Quietly eloping one night, Patrick Callaway and Catherine Stubin secured a private room in a glamorous sleeper car and traveled in luxury for three days to their new home. They would have been traveling with many other excited passengers exploring the western United States or traveling all the way to sunny California for the wealth and opportunities everyone was talking about. Some would go all the way by train; others, like Patrick and Catherine who left the train in Salt Lake City bound for Eagle Rock, Idaho, would finish their trips by stage coach or covered wagon in much less comfort.
It’s important to note that the rail line was not entirely a world unto itself but, rather, a microcosm of the rest of the country. Lavish travel was reserved strictly for first class passengers. Second and third class accommodations might or might not have enough benches for ticket holders, no sleeping rooms, no bathrooms, and no food service. Rampant racism saw former slaves now waiting on first class rail passengers, and, according to a National Public Radio transcript about Pullman, they were all called “George,” in the tradition of being called by an owner’s name — in this case, railroad owner George Pullman. In addition, many Chinese immigrants who had arrived to build the railroad had to ride in designated cars that were over-crowded and provided few, if any, comforts.
The railroad itself was a marvel and offered a faster and less expensive trip than any other way to the newly opened western territories, but the class system carried on.
For many more photos, menus, and details 1866-1968, visit https://www.pullman-museum.org/pdfs/delightOfPullmanDining.pdf for a detailed and fascinating 2007 article by Terence Mulligan.