Excerpts from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Across the Plains (1892)
“I suppose the reader has some notion of an American railroad car, that long, narrow wooden box, like a flat-roofed Noah’s Ark, with a stove and a convenience, one at either end, passage down the middle, and transverse benches upon either hand. Those destined for emigrants on the Union Pacific are only remarkable for their extreme plainness, nothing but wood entering in any part into their constitutions, and for the usual inefficacy of the lamps. . . . The benches are too short for anything but a young child. Where there is scarce elbow-room for two to sit, there will not be space enough for one to lie. Hence . . . the company’s servants have conceived a plan for the better accommodations of travelers. They prevail on every two to chum together. To each of the chums they sell a board and three square cushions stuffed with straw, and covered with thin cotton. The benches can be made to face each other in pairs, for the backs are reversible.
“On the approach of night the boards are laid from bench to bench making a couch wide enough for two, and long enough for a man of the middle height; and the chums lie down side by side upon the cushions with the head to the conductor’s van and the feet to the engine. When the train is full, of course this plan is impossible, for there must not be more than one to every bench, neither can it be carried out unless the chums agree. It was to bring about this last condition that our white-haired official now bestirred himself. He made a most active master of ceremonies, introducing likely couples, and even guaranteeing the amiability and honesty of each. The greater the number of happy couples the better for his pocket, for it was he who sold the raw materials of the beds. His price for one board and three straw cushions began with two dollars and a half; but before the train left, and, I am sorry to say, long after I had purchased mine, it had fallen to one dollar and a half.
“[An] afternoon was spent in making up the train. I am afraid to say how many baggage-wagons followed the engine, certainly a score; then came the Chinese, then we [the single men], then the families, and the rear was brought up by the conductor in what, if I have it rightly, is called the caboose. The class to which I belonged was of course far the largest, and we ran over, so to speak, to both sides; so that there were more Caucasians among the Chinamen [Chinese], and some bachelors among the families. But our own car was pure from admixture, save for one little boy of eight or nine who had the whooping cough. At last, about six, the long train crawled out of the Transfer Station [at Council Bluffs] and across the wide Missouri river to Omaha, westward bound.
“It was a troubled uncomfortable evening in the cars. There was thunder in the air, which helped to keep us restless. A man played many airs upon the cornet, and none of them were much attended to, until we came to Home, sweet home [sic]. It was truly strange to note how the talk ceased at that, and the faces began to lengthen. I have no idea whether musically this air is to be considered good or bad; but it belongs to that class of art which may be best described as a brutal assault upon the feelings. Pathos must be relieved by dignity of treatment. If you wallow naked in the pathetic, like the author of Home, Sweet Home, you make your hearers weep in an unmanly fashion; and even while yet they are moved, they despise themselves and hate the occasion of their weakness. It did not come to tears that night, for the experiment was interrupted. An elderly, hard-looking man, with a goatee beard and about as much appearance of sentiment as you would expect from a retired slaver, turned with a start and bade the performer stop that ‘damned thing.’ ‘I’ve heard about enough of that’ he added, ‘give us something about the good country we’re going to.’ A murmur of adhesion ran around the car; the performer took the instrument from his lips, laughed and nodded, and then struck into a dancing measure.
“There were meals to be had by the wayside . . . rarely less than twenty minutes for each; and if we had not spent many other twenty minutes waiting for some express upon a side track upon miles of desert, we might have taken an hour to each repast and arrived at San Francisco up to time. . . . Civility is the main comfort that you miss. Equality, though conceived very largely in America, does not extend so low down as to an emigrant. Thus in all our trains, a warning cry of ‘All aboard!’ recalls the passengers to take their seats; but as soon as I was alone with emigrants, and from the Transfer all the way to San Francisco, I found this ceremony was pretermitted; the train stole from the station without a note of warning, and you had to keep an eye upon it even while you ate. The annoyance is considerable, and the disrespect wanton and petty. . . .
“It had thundered on the Friday night, but the sun rose on Saturday without a cloud. We were at sea—there is no other adequate expression—on the plains of Nebraska. I made my observatory on the top of a fruit-wagon, and sat by the hour upon that perch to spy about me, and to spy in vain for something new. It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, and empty earth; front and back, the line of railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard board; on either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven. Along the track innumerable wild sunflowers, no bigger than a crown-piece, bloomed in a continuous flower-bed; grazing beasts were seen upon the prairie at all degrees of distance and diminution; and now and again we might perceive a few dots beside the railroad which grew more and more distinct as we drew nearer till they turned into wooden cabins, and then dwindled and dwindled in our wake until they melted into their surroundings, and we were once more alone. . . .
“To cross such a plain is to grow homesick for the mountains. I longed for the Black Hills of Wyoming, which I knew we were soon to enter, like an ice-bound whaler for the spring. Alas! and it was a worse country than the other. All Sunday and Monday we traveled through these sad mountains, or over the main ridge of the Rockies, which is a fair match to them for misery of aspect. Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of monuments and fortifications—how drearily, how tamely, none can tell who has not seen them . . . and for sole sign of life, here and there a few fleeting antelopes; here and there, but at incredible intervals, a creek running in a canon [canyon]. The plains have a grandeur of their own; but here there is nothing but a contorted smallness. Except for the air, which was light and stimulating, there was not one good circumstance in that God-forsaken land.”—Jensen, The American Heritage History of Railroads in America, pp. 130, 131.
INDEX CONTINUE APPENDIX D