W. Fraser (William Fraser) Rae.

Westward by rail : a journey to San Francisco and back and a visit to the Mormons online

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tation. Not far from Chicago an Artesian well is
pointed out, and a story is told respecting its dis-
covery which the believers in Spiritualism would
accept as testimony in favour of their views, and the
disbelievers would cite as condemnatory of them.
A short time ago a Spiritualist had a communication
to the effect that if he sank a well in a particular
locality he would ' strike oil.' Full of faith in the
message, he set to work, heedless of the scoffs of his
neighbours. Foot after foot he bored downwards,
but without achieving the promised end. Yet he
did not despair of success, and he boldly expended
what money he had in the prosecution of the under-
taking. Still there was no sign of oil. At last,


however, a stream of liquid rushed to the surface,
and his hope of success waxed strong. A reaction
took place in his mind as soon as the liquid was
tested, for it proved to be pure water. Instead of
discovering a spring of oil, the explorer had sunk
an Artesian well, and thus, although he had not
wasted his substance in vain, yet he had performed
no marvellous feat. It is possible to sink an Ar-
tesian well without the intervention of the spirits.
Farther west, and on the other side of the line, I
saw what appeared to be a nursery garden devoted
to the growth of young trees. The young plants
were in ordered rows, and disposed with a special
view to regularity. A fellow-traveller who knew
the country and its customs, told me that my sup-
position was erroneous. The spot was the chosen
site of a future city. It is thus that speculators
plan out and prepare the way for the settlement of
uninhabited tracts of suitable land. Not only do
they plant the trees destined to overshadow the
footpaths on which unborn children will play, but
they also give names to the streets, and even set
apart sites for imaginary buildings. All these things
are carefully noted in a map which is shown to the
seekers after new abodes. They buy lots where
their fancy dictates, and sometimes find on arriving
to take possession that they are the first and the


only inhabitants. The trick is not a new one. It
was played upon Martin Chuzzlewit when he
determined to make his home in what he thought
was a new and rising city, but which proved to be
an old and dismal swamp.

Five hours after leaving Chicago, the train
reaches the bridge which crosses the Mississippi.
This bridge is nearly a mile in length, and is con-
structed partly of wood and partly of iron. The
structure has a very unsubstantial appearance, and,
as it creaks and sways while the train passes over
it, the contingency of an unwelcome descent into
the deep and rapid stream beneath is one which
flashes over the mind. Once across the bridge,
the Westward-bound traveller enters the young, yet
flourishing State of Iowa, a State in which count-
less settlers may find pleasant homes on its rolling
prairies. On either side, as far as the horizon, a
few farmhouses alone serve to break the monotony
of the prospect. To these vast tracts the epithet
which Homer affixed to the sea may not inaptly
be applied. They are literally ( unharvested,' await-
ing the touch of industry to yield up their teem-
ing treasures. The long, rank grass which waves
on their surface, rots for lack of a mower to gather
it in, or is converted into dust and ashes when
the spark falling from the passing locomotive, or


thrown by the heedless wanderer, kindles the
flame which no human power can extinguish. The
spectacle of a prairie on fire is one of infinite
grandeur. For miles on every side the air is
heavy with volumes of stifling smoke, and the
ground reddened with hissing and rushing fire.
The beholder can with difficulty apprehend the
possibility of the mass of flame being quenched
till the entire country had become a barren and
blackened waste. Much depends upon the strength
of the wind as well as the quarter from which it
blows. A lull will stay the conflagration, while
a sudden change, by reversing the direction of
the fiery waves, will sweep them back over the
tract which they have devastated, and thus lead
to their own extinction. A scene less impressive,
but far more enjoyable, is that of the moon flood-
ing the silent prairie with silvery light. The
smallest object then stands forth in bold relief and
fixes the attention. Innumerable wild flowers per-
fume the air. The senses are at once quickened
and overpowered by the impression of illimitable
space. As the mind is awakened to the thought
that those who people these vast tracts of fertile
land will enjoy a freedom hardly less complete,
while far better ordered than that of the wanton
, balmy with perfume, it is not difficult to


understand the proneness to exaggeration, which is
the characteristic of the Americans of the West,
and to sympathise with their opinions of countries
in which an untrodden wilderness is an impossi-
bility, and every acre is cultivated like a garden.
Nor is it unpatriotic to feel a longing that the
thousands who earn precarious livelihoods in the
United Kingdom by tilling the soil, of which their
taskmasters are the lords, could be transported to
a locality where the strength of their arms would
not only win for them a comfortable subsistence,
but would also enable them to become possessors
in their own right of the soil which yields them
their daily bread. If the Dorsetshire labourer,
who hardly knows what it is to taste butcher's
meat, or the Irish peasant, whose ambition is to
possess a bit of land, could be convinced of the
lot which he might enjoy as a settler on the prairies
of Iowa, the former would soon cease to serve and
reverence the squire, and the latter would turn
his face to the setting sun with the feeling which
the Mahommedan cherishes for the city of Mecca.

The picture is a bright one, but it would be
unnatural were it unrelieved by shade. The State
of Iowa has its drawbacks, in the shape of swamps,
as well as its treasures, in the form of rolling
prairies. Fortunately the prairie predominates over


the swamp. From east to west this State extends
287 miles, and it is 210 miles in breadth. At its
western extremity the line of the Chicago and
North Western Railway passes through one of the
worst swamps in the whole State. A few days
previous to my journey the rain had swollen the
waters, and the rails were inundated. The train
went along at a snail's pace. It was a puzzle to
comprehend how the rails kept their places and
the sleepers upheld their burden. The latter were
resting upon what appeared to be liquid mud. . It
was well that they remained unbroken. Had they
given way, the consequences would have been
disastrous. When asked by an anxious and timid
passenger what would happen were the road-bed
to sink altogether, the conductor answered, f Guess
the cars would go to hell's bottom.' These swamps
are veritable quicksands. Whatever enters them
is engulphed for ever. As it happened, the only
serious mischief was a detention of the train. Since
then I have learned that the company has profited
by the warning, and has renewed the line at this
part in such a way as to render a recurrence of the
danger almost an impossibility. Several miles be-
fore Council Bluffs, the station on the eastern bank
of the Missouri, is reached, a fine view is had of
Omaha, on the western bank. The prospect is



deceitful, as is not unfrequently the case when
cities are viewed from a distance. Situated on a
rising ground, Omaha appears to be a city with
fine streets and stately buildings. Seen more
closely, the streets are found to be straggling and
the buildings common-place, with but few excep-
tions. One of the disenchantments for which the
traveller by this line must be prepared, occurs when
he has to be transported across the Missouri from
Council Bluffs to Omaha. The accounts he may
have read of palace cars running through from
New York to San Francisco must have led him to
underrate the discomforts to be faced and borne.
One of these is changing from car to car and rail
to rail. A short time ago I read in the New
York Tribune a glowing account of the luxurious
way in which a party had travelled without change
of cars from Sacramento to New York. That
this was the rare exception I learned before leaving
Chicago ; but I did not know that the arrange-
ments were still incomplete for transporting pas-
sengers in comfort across the Missouri River, and
my ignorance was shared by many of my fellow-
passengers. On arriving at Council Bluffs, we
found omnibuses in waiting at the station. The
morning was cold and raw. But a small proportion
of the passengers could get inside seats, the re-


mainder having the option of either sitting on the
roof among the luggage, or else being left behind.
In itself the seat on the roof was not objectionable,
provided the time occupied were brief. As nearly
an hour was thus spent, the feeling of satisfaction
at having got a seat at all was supplanted by a
feeling of annoyance at the treatment received.
Through deep ruts in the mud the omnibus was
slowly drawn by four horses to the river's bank,
and thence on to the deck of a flat-bottomed
steamer. Seated there, a good view was had of
the Missouri. It has been called mighty, which it
doubtless is, considered as a stream, yet the appella-
tion of ( Big Muddy,' which is current here, is the
one which more truthfully characterises it. The
banks are masses of dark mud, resembling the
heights which line the sea coast at Cromer, in
Norfolk, and just as every high tide undermines
and crumbles away the latter, so does the river's
current sweep away portions of the former. The
peculiarity of the Missouri is the shifting character
of its current. Now and then it suddenly abandons
its old bed, scooping out a new one an hundred
yards distant. A fellow-traveller who had seen
it a month previously said that since then the river
had shifted its course, and that what was now a
vast bed of mud had then formed the river's

F 2


channel. The erratic career of this river is giving
sad trouble to the railway company. There is no
certainty that any particular spot chosen for the
landing-stage will continue available for the pur-
pose from hour to hour and from day to day.
There is a plan for erecting a bridge over the Mis-
souri, but the difficulty of finding a solid founda-
tion has hitherto proved insurmountable. The bed
and banks of the river are quicksands of great
depth. These physical obstacles will probably be
overcome, but the cost of success must assuredly
be heavy. Moreover, the question of labour is one
which adds an element of complication to the
problem. It is proposed to bring Chinamen from
California in order to build the bridge. To this
the Irishmen already employed make vigorous ob-
jections, threatening terrible things should . their
protests be unheeded. There is too much reason to
fear that when the unoffending Chinamen arrive
they will be the victims of dastardly outrages.

The first thing which catches the eye on reach-
ing the western bank of the river is a small shanty
in which liquors are sold. On the one side are
the words, ( First Chance ; ' on the other, 6 Last
Chance.' Regardless of the risk of getting some
vile compound bearing the name of whisky, many
rushed to avail themselves of the opportunity, and


the enterprising proprietor had reason to congratu-
late himself on having founded his bar on Missouri
mud. Through this mud the omnibus laboured
slowly, the outside passengers being advised by the
driver to move about from one side of the roof to
another, in order to guard against upsetting the
overladen vehicle. A general feeling of relief was
manifested when the station of the Union Pacific
Railway was reached. From this point the tra-
veller really begins his trip over the great railway
which Americans justly class among the grandest
and most wonderful achievements of modern times.




OMAHA is one of those American cities which seem
to spring up, flourish, and wax great in the twinkling
of an eye. Its history dates from 1854. In that
year a few squatters fixed their residence in this
section of what was then the Territory of Nebraska,
which was regarded as in the heart of the Far West.
Situated on the bank of the Missouri River, at a
point almost equidistant between the Atlantic and
Pacific Oceans, Omaha had many natural advan-
tages, and these have been turned to profitable
account since the Pacific Railway has furnished the
opportunity. Certain it is that the city's prospects
are bright. In 1860 the population did not exceed
1,883 ; now the number of inhabitants is estimated
at 20,000. There are many manufactories within
its bounds, one distillery, and several breweries. In
the year 1868-9 the sales of the merchants were up-
wards of a million and a quarter sterling. Like most
American cities it possesses two daily newspapers,


the one the Republican the other the Democratic
organ. Four other journals are published at longer
intervals. Of schools, both public and private,
there is abundance. The churches are fifteen in
number. There are eleven hotels, of which one or
two are first-class establishments. That this pro-
gress should have been made within the space of a
few short years is not only marvellous, but inspires
hope that the city's future will be a great and an
enviable one. Although the chief city, Omaha is
not now the capital of the State of Nebraska. When
it was the capital, its enterprising citizens built an
imposing State House, a structure which can be
seen for many miles on all sides, and one which is
an ornament to the city. However, for reasons
unknown to me, Lincoln city, a place of far less
note and importance, was made the capital in 1868.
A story is told of the postmaster which illustrates
the changes made here during the past few years.
Mr. Jones, one of the first squatters, was appointed
to the office of postmaster in the autumn of 1854.
At that time there was no office, while letters were
rarities. The letters which did come were kept by
the postmaster in the crown of his hat till he met
their owners, or till their owners claimed them.
Those who expected letters had to look sharply
after this official, and had sometimes to go long


distances over the prairie in order to make the
necessary inquiries of him. Only fifteen years have
elapsed since this primitive state of things was the
rule, and the post-office has expanded from a hat
into an office wherein six clerks are employed.

The early history of the Pacific Railway is sur-
rounded with obscurity, and is the subject of
controversy. The claimants for the honour of
having first mooted the project and of having the
most materially furthered its progress are very
numerous. It cannot be disputed, however, that
John Plumbe a Welshman by birth and a natu-
ralised American, began a vigorous agitation in
1836 in favour of carrying a railway across the
Continent. He lived till after the gold discoveries
had been made in California, and he used them as
additional arguments in support of his pet scheme.
As the tide of emigration flowed towards the Pacific
slope and as States and Territories of vast impor-
tance were being founded beyond the Rocky
Mountains, it became a national necessity to obtain
easy means of communication between the East and
the West. That many men of weight and ability
should have advocated the construction of a railway
is merely what might have been expected under
circumstances such as these.


In 1853, Congress voted funds wherewith to con-
duct a survey in order to ascertain which was the
best route. Two routes were traced out and the
particulars concerning each were detailed in reports
which fill thirteen large volumes. The greatest
difficulty consisted in agreeing as to whether the
more northerly or the more southerly was the pre-
ferable one. The representatives of the Northern
and Eastern States supported the former, while the
representatives of the South preferred the latter.
The result was a discussion which promised to be
interminable. Had it not been for the outbreak of
the war this great undertaking might still have
remained a project. But the war, which was
destined to settle several controversies in a decisive
way, brought this one to a summary close. The
isolation of California was percived to involve
a peril to the Union. To construct the trans-
continental railway was regarded as a strategic
move. Those who had favoured the extreme
southerly route were no longer able to take part
in the debates of Congress, nor was Congress then
in a position to decree the construction of a railway
through the southern part of the States. Hence,
when in 1862 the scheme came up for practical
settlement the present route was approved of on
the ground that, despite some drawbacks it was on


the whole the most feasible one which could then
be selected.

Two Companies were empowered by Congress to
undertake the work; subject to certain conditions
and in return for certain advantages. The Union
Pacific Company was to begin at Omaha and pro-
ceed Westwards, the Central Pacific Company was
to begin at Sacramento and proceed Eastwards
and both were to continue operations till a junction
was effected. The estimated cost was one hundred
millions of dollars, or about 20,000,OOOZ. In aid of the
undertaking subsidies of bonds, on which the interest
was guaranteed, and grants of land along the line
were awarded by Congress. The bond subsidy was
divided into three sections. For the most level
portion the rate was sixteen thousand dollars per
rnile; for the portion more precipitous, thirty-two
thousand dollars, and for the mountainous portion
forty-eight thousand dollars, per mile. The total
subsidies of this character have been fifty-eight
million eight hundred and forty thousand dollars.
Interest on bonds to a like amount has also been
guaranteed. The land grants consist of every
alternate section for twenty miles on each side of
the line, that is at the rate of 12,800 acres per mile.
It is calculated that of these grants the Union
Pacific has become entitled to an aggregate of


13,875,200 acres, and the Central Pacific to
8,832,000. Much of this land is valueless, but
a large proportion is of excellent quality. The
time may come when by the sale of the land the
Companies will realise an amount sufficient to re-
coup them for the greater part of their outlay, and
thus the shareholders will have acquired a most
lucrative property for an almost nominal sum. But
the individual advantages which may hereafter be
reaped no one should grudge. The prospective
gain to the Companies is a mere trifle when com-
pared with the immediate and tangible benefit
which has already been conferred on the country.
Less wise than some of the other provisions was one
inserted in the charters in furtherance of the policy
of Protection which was rampant at the time when
Congress legislated for this railway. It was pro-
vided, under the penalty of forfeiture of all the
privileges conferred, that every pound of manufac-
tured iron used in the construction of the line
should be of home make. This was done at the
instigation and for the personal enrichment of the
iron-masters of Pennsylvania. Several American
gentlemen with whom I conversed on the subject
censured this arrangement in stronger terms than I
care to reproduce. The bargain was unfair to the
nation. The result of it has been to add at least


twenty million of dollars to the cost of construction.
Nor is this lavish and needless expenditure the
worst part of the arrangement. The iron is ad-
mitted to be at once more costly and less perfect
than that which the Companies might have imported
from Europe had their charters permitted them the
free exercise of their discretion.

Quite as noteworthy as the fact of the line
having been constructed at all, is the speed with
which it was completed. On the 5th November,
1865, the first sod of the Union Pacific Railway was
turned near the Missouri River, and within a short
distance of Omaha. In less than four years after-
wards the line was completed, the ceremony of
driving the last spike having taken place on the
10th May, 1869. When it is considered that the
length of one portion is 1,084 miles, the rapidity
of construction almost staggers the most credulous.
It is true that the line is a single one, that the
stations are temporary structures, and that the
bridges are built of wood, yet this does not render
the enterprise the less extraordinary.

Passing from statistics about the Union Pacific
to an account of personal experience of the rail-
way, let it be supposed that the forenoon train is
about to start on its long journey of more than


1,000 miles from the terminus at Omaha to the
station at Promontory, which is the eastern termi-
nus of the Central Pacific. Confusion reigns
supreme here, as at most American railway stations.
Excited passengers are rushing about in quest of
the luggage which, despite the system of ' checking,'
is often going astray or getting out of sight.
Frantic efforts are made to attract the attention of
the baggage clerk, and to induce him to attach the
necessary check to the trunk or portmanteau, which
has at length been discovered. Those who get
this part of their business over proceed to the
office in order to secure berths in Pullman's sleep-
ing car. The number of these berths is limited
and bitter is the disappointment of those who fail
in obtaining one. The prospect of spending se-
veral nights in an ordinary car is enough to depress
the mind and daunt the courage of the hardiest
traveller. Having had the good fortune to be
among those who had secured berths by telegraph,
I was able to hear the exclamations of the. disap-
pointed with pleasant equanimity. As a class, the
passengers differed greatly from those with whom I
journeyed to Omaha from Chicago. Some were
old Calif ornians returning home after a visit to their
birthplaces in the Eastern States. Others were
taking the overland route to San Francisco, in


order to compare its comforts with those of the
route across the Isthmus of Panama. A consider-
able proportion consisted of adventurers bound for
California to seek their fortunes, and a very few
were travelling for their pleasure. To nearly
every one the journey is a new one, partaking of
the character of a daring enterprise. Some who
profess to be well informed mis-spend their time
in endeavours to excite the fears of the timid and
the apprehensions of the excitable. They enlarge
on the dangers incident to a line constructed too
hurriedly. They draw ghastly pictures of perils
to be faced in the event of the wild Indians putting
obstructions in the way of the train, and attacking
the passengers. It is possible that these tales
promoted the sale of insurance tickets. An agent
of a railway insurance company walked through
the train before it left the station, and vigorously
canvassed the passengers. Many of them had
already made this provision for accidents. Indeed,
the Americans are too shrewd a people to omit
making arrangements in view of the consequences
of a railway accident. In ' Appleton's Handbook
of American Travel ' the last piece of advice given
in the introduction is, f Having laid in your neces-
sary supplies, it only remains for you to insure
yourself against accident by sea or land.' The


reader of this is not unnaturally induced to ask
himself whether, if pleasure travelling in the United
States be regarded as fraught with so much danger
it is not wiser to stay at home.

Four miles after leaving Omaha, the first stop-
page is made. The journey is now fairly begun
and every one is on the look out for new scenery
and strange adventures. As mile after mile is left
behind, the remark is very generally made that the
surrounding country, instead of being wild and
desolate, is rich and filled with settlers. Farm
houses and tilled fields are seen on both sides of
the line, and this spectacle is a common one
throughout a large tract of the State of Nebraska.

Online LibraryW. Fraser (William Fraser) RaeWestward by rail : a journey to San Francisco and back and a visit to the Mormons → online text (page 6 of 27)