Riding the Rails
In a world that moves by car and jetliner, riding the rails can seem like a quaint anachronism. But the railroad is a cherished part of American culture, having inspired songs, films and even political campaigning. Trains have made our lives easier and shaped history ever since glittering tracks were laid across the landscape in the mid-19th century—and they’ve actually been around a lot longer than that.
In 1830 England’s first commercial railway ushered in a new era. By moving raw materials to factories, manufactured goods to market and workers from the countryside to the cities of industry, the wooden, locomotive-drawn carriages brought the Industrial Revolution to fruition. But little did the inaugural passengers know, they were almost 2,500 years behind the times. In the sixth century B.C., Periander built the first “railway”—the diolkos, a limestone track across the isthmus of Corinth, along which men hauled carts laden with cargo, and sometimes entire boats, for four miles between ports on the Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs. Grooves allowed the wheels to slide with relative ease. The diolkos was soon part of popular culture: In Aristophanes’s play Thesmophoriazusae, a character swings his giant phallus and other characters comment, “You’ve got an isthmus, man: You’re shunting your cock up and down it more often than the Corinthians do their ships!” Trains found their way into English literature, too, often as a symbol of a bleak new industrial age. As George Orwell writes in The Road to Wigan Pier, “The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud.”
Around 1845, not long after commercial railways went into service, British politicians began debating the notion of underground rail transport. Impossible as “a train in a drain” seemed to be, an underground railway would relieve congestion on the streets above. The London Underground, known today as the Tube, opened in 1863, and by the end of that year 11.8 million passengers had ridden it. Like many other advances of the Industrial Revolution, the Underground transformed daily life, making it easier to get around the rapidly expanding capital. For some early passengers, riding in the smelly, airless subway evoked all the ills of industrialization. The Times of London likened a ride on the train to a “form of mild torture,” while the company that operated the first line reassured riders that smoky conditions underground “provided a sort of health resort for people who suffered from asthma.” Passengers now make more than a billion trips a year on the London Underground. Annual ridership in New York, where the first subway line opened in 1904, tops 1.7 billion. Residents of both cities love to gripe about their underground transport, but it’s hard to imagine urban life without it.
American folk music legend Woody Guthrie extols the rail-hopping lifestyle in his fictionalized autobiography Bound for Glory. In the song “Talking Subway,” he’s less enthusiastic about a ride on the New York City system, which “herded me through a shoot the shoot. / Run me through three clothes wringers. / So many people down in there I couldn’t even fall down.” English singer Petula Clarke agrees, telling her lover to swallow his pride, come home and “don’t sleep in the subway, darlin’.” Simon and Garfunkel meanwhile sing of a “dark, deserted station, / restless in anticipation.” The subway isn’t always ominous in song. Tom Waits, who sounds like a creaky old subway himself, reminds us that “downtown trains are full of all those Brooklyn girls,” and Duke Ellington advises, “Get on the A train, / Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem.” Graffitied subway cars roll through too many rap lyrics to mention; hip-hop demigod Jay Z even took his name from the J and Z lines that stop in his native Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But leave it to the Muppets to find the ride downright thrilling, in “Subway”: “Swaying to and fro, it’s the only way to go.”
During the 1930s, an estimated 2 million people looking for work, many of them teenagers, traveled the country by hopping freight trains. These itinerants were known as hoboes—the term entered the parlance in the late 19th century and may have derived from a popular railroader greeting, “Hey, beau.” This lifestyle was dangerous: As many as 6,500 vagrant riders died each year, and countless others lost limbs when they fell under the wheels while jumping on and off moving trains. Yet the experience was not without romance. Novelist Louis L’Amour rode the rails for years, encountering many of the characters who would appear in his stories of the Old West. Poet Carl Sandburg said of his time on trains, “Away deep in my heart now I had hope as never before. Struggles lay ahead, I was sure, but whatever they were I would not be afraid of them.” Charlie Chaplin glamorized the hobo life in City Lights (1931) and several other films in which he played his signature Little Tramp character. And Woody Guthrie, the folksinger known for such songs as “This Land Is Your Land,” portrayed his trek westward hopping freight trains in Bound for Glory.
On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven into a railroad tie near Promontory Summit, Utah, completing the first transcontinental railroad. During this new age of rail travel, ushered in by the Industrial Revolution, passengers could travel cross-country in four days, compared to the four to six months the journey took by wagon train. By the 1920s, Americans were riding the rails in big numbers, logging nearly 32 billion passenger-miles a year (a passenger-mile is one passenger carried one mile). Ridership peaked at 98 billion in 1944. The Super Chief and other trains that raced across the plains, often at 100 miles per hour, came to symbolize American zeal. Passengers with the means to buy a ticket could lounge in paneled dining cars and sleek smokers that epitomized worldly glamour in those pre-jet-set days. Meanwhile, the less fortunate hopped on and off freight trains, as millions of Americans became itinerant to escape the effects of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. By the 1950s, air travel and the interstate highway system rendered train travel more or less obsolete, and riding the rails, along with the golden spike, became a legendary part of the American past.
By 1932 drought and the Great Depression had taken a major toll on the United States. More than 34 million Americans—more than a quarter of the population—lived in families without a regular wage earner. During the Dust Bowl, or the Dirty Thirties, massive dust storms rendered much of the farmland on the Great Plains an arid wasteland. More than 2 million Americans migrated around the country looking for work, and the 250,000 miles of railroad track that crisscrossed the nation made it easy to do so. The rail network also made it possible for the 1932 presidential candidates, incumbent Herbert Hoover and soon-to-be-victorious Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to cover a great deal of ground and make speeches at stations, or whistle-stops, along the way. From the rear platforms of their private cars the candidates delivered promises to pull the country out of the Depression. President Barack Obama, who has been shepherding the country out of the economic slump caused by 2008’s fiscal crisis, revived the whistle-stop tradition in 2009, when he traveled by train from Philadelphia to his inauguration in Washington, D.C., following part of the route another popular president, Abraham Lincoln, took nearly 150 years earlier.
In his 1860 campaign for president against Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas mastered the whistle-stop when he stumped by rail, making speeches in 150 towns in 23 states. One of the first great U.S. train robberies occurred not too much later, on October 6, 1866, when the Reno gang made off with $10,000 (the equivalent of more than $150,000 today) from a moving train in Indiana. By the time the groundbreaking silent film The Great Train Robbery was released, in 1903, train holdups were an established part of the fabled American frontier.
During the 1984 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan duplicated a whistle-stop tour Harry Truman had made through Ohio in 1948. Reagan made five speeches in one day from the back of Truman’s famous railway car, the Ferdinand Magellan. Just a stunt, groused Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale, who dubbed the event the Great Train Robbery. From the Ferdinand Magellan, Reagan noticed a roadside sign with the slogan “Mondale is the man.” Invoking Truman’s famously salty tongue, Reagan harrumphed, “The hell he is!” Reagan took the election by 525 electoral votes, the most ever won by a presidential candidate, suggesting whistle-stops still pack a punch.
To paraphrase Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, the Industrial Revolution was the best of times and the worst of times. While the quality of life improved for many, overcrowding, homelessness and poverty soared in cities in England and the eastern United States as newcomers arrived to look for work in factories. Railroads made it easy to move goods, but they also provided a target for criminals—as William Pierce and his accomplices proved in 1855, when they orchestrated the first great train robbery, carting off £12,000 in gold (worth $1.5 million today) from a train ferrying payroll bound for British troops in the Crimea.
The American West was especially attractive to train robbers. Law enforcement was spotty, the wide-open landscape provided plenty of places to hide, and many trains carried strongboxes of cash. Stories of gun-toting Jesse James and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid have captivated filmgoers ever since the release of The Great Train Robbery, a 1903 silent based on Cassidy’s 1900 holdup of a Union Pacific train near Table Rock, Wyoming. Today TV viewers can watch iron-horse malefaction on AMC’s series Hell on Wheels, set in 1865, just before the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
Periander was a forward-thinking man. His diolkos was the world’s first “railway line,” shuttling goods and even whole ships across the Grecian Isthmus of Corinth, saving the 400-mile trip around the Peloponnese peninsula. But his unrealized dream was to replace the diolkos with a canal. Roman emperor Nero personally broke ground for the waterway project in 67 A.D. but died soon afterward. The Corinth Canal didn’t open to ship traffic until 2,000 years later—in 1893.
Some New Yorkers feel as if they’ve been waiting nearly as long for a subway line beneath Second Avenue. The plan has been in the works since 1929, and the first leg, finally under construction, is scheduled to open in 2016. Commuters who travel between Baltimore and Washington may one day have a new route too—on “maglev” trains (maglev is short for magnetic levitation), which harness the force of magnets to levitate above a guideway at speeds of up to 270 miles per hour. For drivers who battle traffic 45 minutes each way, the idea of wafting to their destination in a mere 18 minutes may seem like a wild dream, as have a lot of other transport schemes over the millennia.