The Sedalia Katy Depot

Sedalia Missouri's  Visitor Center and Year-Round Historic Railroad Destination

All Aboard Exhibit ... Passenger Train Travel

Brief History of the U S Passenger Rail Industry

The the first steam powered train carried 141 people six miles on its initial run in 1830.

The relative speed and ability to travel regardless of the weather made rail travel attractive to travelers.  By 1840, 2818 miles of track were laid down; by the start of the Civil War 30,000 miles of track had been laid.

70,000 additional miles of track were laid in the 1880’s, linking increasing number of towns and cities.  Rail travel tripled between 1896 and 1916, the pinnacle for rail travel in terms of numbers was 1920, with trains carrying 1.2 billion passengers.

During WWII the federal government has ‘nationalized’ the trains.  Each railroad company was guaranteed a new operating income regardless of their actual income.  Any amount above the net income went back to the government.  As WWII expanded in Europe, passenger trains became overloaded with the massive movement of troops to and from various forts and staging areas around the country.

Many railroads recognized that the increase in passenger travel during the war would probably be temporary, but most executives were not prepared for the extent of decline in passenger travel that would occur over the next decade.  New diesel engines and thousands of passenger cars were ordered soon after the end of the war in 1945, reflecting the hopeful outlook of the railroads for the future of passenger travel.

In addition to the delay in production and the resultant inability to immediately capture the post war boom in travel and trade, a variety of other factors contributed to the decline of the railroads.  The railroads were perceived as trying to discourage passenger travel in favor of the more lucrative freight business.  Fares were raised an service on trains was decreased.  Reduction in railroad advertising budgets; increased competition by automobiles, buses and planes; elimination of government subsidies; excise tax on tickets and increased municipal property taxes all added expenses and hindered the railroads ability to make improvement sin passenger travel.

Bankruptcies, mergers, and acquisitions of many railroad companies occurred during the second half of the 20th century, due to a decrease in passenger travel and freight and mail service.  By 1970, airlines carried 73% of passenger travel.  Railroads carried a scant 7.2%.  A national rail passenger system – AMTRAK – was created in 1971.  Seen as a way of providing some balance to transportation options and with a view to reducing automobile traffic congestion.  Amtrak’s image rose during the oil embargo of the mid 1970’s, but the increase in ridership was not maintained.

Source: Duke Libraries

Rail Transport in the US

During 1825-1850, Americans watched closely the development of railways in England.  The main competition came from canals, many of which were in operation under state ownership, and from privately owned steamboats plying the nation’s vast river system

Railroad mileage increase
1850 – 9021
1860 – 30,626
1870 – 52,914
1880 – 93,301
1890 – 129,774
Source: Wikipedia

Trains Across the Continent

During the 1830’s and early 1840’s the railroads experienced many technological and business developments.  First and foremost, the railroads became ‘common carriers’ for the general public.  Railroad cars or ‘rolling stock’ underwent changes.  The first cars were simply stage coaches or carts fitted with flanges on the wheels and connected together by chains.  Later on, cars were made specifically for use on the railroads.  Built forty feet long with benches on the sides, these cars had windows which could not be opened, entry at ends and even candles and a stove.  springs gave a smoother ride.  By the mid 1840’s this type of car became the standard.                                                               

Early Passenger Accommodations

The early railroads stopped anywhere along the tracks to pick up passengers or freight.  Nevertheless, most people gathered at the nearest way house along the track and waited for the train.  Innkeepers were hired by the railroad to sell passage on the train.

The train station or depot quickly became the center of all the town’s activities.

The inn-station was one of the few conveniences of early train travel.  As distances increased, the train would often stop for passengers to gulp down a quick meal.  Sometimes only 20 minutes were allowed.  Passengers often stayed overnight at one of these inns during a long rip.  By the late 1830’s wooden planks on ropes were used for people to rest or sleep in the cars.  A few railroads had cars designated specifically for ladies with wash basins and changing rooms by the early 1840’s.

Children took advantage of the early inconveniences of rail travel.  During winter they would heat stones near the tracks and sell them to passengers to warm their hands and feet.  Some carried water, snacks and a local newspaper to the people.  By the 1840’s they would travel on the trains themselves and were welcomed by the crew.

The Traveling Public

By 1840 the business called the ‘forwarding house’ came into existence.  The Forwarding House would purchase large numbers of railroad and stage coach seats in advance to a number of destinations.  It would then sell a traveler a ‘package’ which included vouchers for rail and stagecoach connections.  Many of these early forms of ‘travel agencies’ were quite unscrupulous and left passengers stranded with invalid vouchers.  The railroads fostered the earliest ‘travel industry’.

People liked to travel by train right from the beginning.  They were fascinated by the new technology.  In fact, it probably was the first truly technological device most people had ever seen.  As they rode on the train they were in awe of the speed.  The train brought about a different relationship between people and the land.  They became ‘observers’ of the landscape.  The journey became a leaving one place and arriving at another rather than the difficulties and discomfort of the trip itself.

Railroad Fever 

During the 1840’s the expression “Manifest Destiny’ was coined to explain the growth of the United States and a belief that “The country had a right, a God given destiny, to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and to govern all the land in between”.  Putting action into those words resulted in a movement which was just beginning.

People caught Oregon Fever - they would travel to St Louis where they would purchase horses and a prairie schooner.  They would then join with others to form a wagon train to cross the remainder of the continent to Oregon.  Soon others branched off to California (Gold Rush) or Texas.

Passenger Accommodations 

Passengers traveling by train in the 1840’s and 50’s experienced a few improvements in accommodations.  Most cars held between forty and fifty passengers.  Seats were along the side with stiff back benches.  Windows now could be opened, although there was always the chance of live ashes burning clothing or getting in the eyes.  The plain cars became known as “accommodation cars.”  There were also ‘best cars’ with plush seats and even curtains.  Many had ornately painted ceilings.  In both cars winter travel still posed another inconvenience.  If one seat near the stove at the end of the car, he or she literally baked, but if the passenger sat in the middle, he or she froze.

The first sleeping cars came into use at this time.  In 1843, coaches were modified into the first true sleeper.  They used seat cushions to turn the benches into rudimentary couches.  No linens or blankets were furnished.  It did use candles to keep the cars lit at night.  Passengers clamored to ride in these cars but were soon removed from service because they added too much weight and made the train slow down.

Just before the Civil War, a number of cars were built with berths rather than seats and restrooms at each end.  These sleepers became immediately popular.  During the Civil War the Wagner Palace Car Company had over 300 sleepers in use on American railroads with in a few decades.  They also built parlor cars with large comfortable chairs that could be moved from place to place.

Passengers found train travel more comfortable as well as faster by the end of the century.  Lighting coaches was a major problem. Kerosene lamps had replaced candles by the civil war.  While they provided better light, they were a fire hazard, dirty and each had to be maintained as a separate unit.

Union Station

Railroads built huge, magnificent stations to show their power to the public.  Many stations were architectural monuments and works of art.  Passengers who walked through their colossal halls and waiting rooms were aware of the railroads’ power.  A union station meant that two or more railroad company used the facility.  Constructed in 1894, the St. Louis Union Station served 18 different railroads.

Dining Car

Weighing up to 90 tons, and measuring 80 feet in length, the diner was often the heaviest and longest car on the train.  Depending on the degree of luxury, most diners seated 36 to 40 passengers at a time.  The usual arrangement placed four to a table on one side across from two at a table on the other.  An 8 x 30 foot kitchen could prepare up to 100 meals for one series of seatings.  A full crew consisted of six waiters, three cooks a steward and a dishwasher.

On many trains, the porter announced dinner seatings with musical chimes.  Only the finest meals appeared on the tables covered with the very best silverware.  Each railroad designed and labeled plates of the finest china available.  Every passenger could look forward to a culinary delight and top service in the diner.  During the 1920’s railroads served about 60,000 meals a day at a loss of $9 million.

Lounge Car

The lounge car was another attraction.  An attendant sold sandwiches, snacks and various beverages.  After prohibition ended, wines, cocktails and beer appeared on the card.  The seats were more comfortable and were placed to encourage conversation.

Most long distance trains ended with an observation car.    Until the 1930’s the car had an open observation platform at the rear.  Railroads displayed their heralds just above the coupler.

No matter which overnight train or railroad, Pullman always represented the best of ‘sleep in safety and comfort’.  During the 1920’s ,approximately 100,000 people slept every night and everywhere across the nation in a Pullman.

On 1927 Pullman issued its first all private room car.  It consisted of 14 rooms of 33 square feet.  Each room had its own toilet and washstand.  The fare was 25% above the regular train ticket.

During the 1930’s Pullman operated a pool of 9,000 sleeping cars.

Tickets and Fares 

Most tickets were purchased at windows in the station.  Tickets could be purchased on the train from the conductor, but with an extra charge.

In 1929, a ride from Chicago to Omaha on the Rock Island Railroad
Coach - $3
Pullman lower berth - 4.50
Pullman upper berth - 3.60
Compartment - $12.75

All Aboard Exhibit Sponsors

James Bathon Research and design

             Two suitcases on freight cart

             One hatbox

Larry Melton Rail tie with spike from Promontory

Rory Melville Wood MKT Boarding Step

Edith Knight  Antique Trunk filled with clothes

             Antique Trunk

             Antique Trunk used to ship bolts of fabric

Kathleen Boswell Suitcases

Deborah Biermann MoPac sign in school bldg exhibit  

                               (PL’s WWII uniform, duffel bag & tote

Ken Bird Time tables in commercial building exhibit

Carolyn Miller Vintage Clothes in telegraph windows, on passenger train   seat, in Dining Car exhibit and in Pullman exhibit

Mike Albin, A & B Auto Reupholstered passenger train seat

Tom Taylor MoPac souvenir plate

             Use of postcards

Gary Cox Model dining, sleeper & lounge cars