Riding the Rails

20 Dec 2012

I am writing this on board the Amtrak Acela from Pennsylvania Station in New York City to Boston. Train travel is so civilized. One of the many benefits of living in Boston is the wide variety of transportation available to you. And between Boston and New York (even as far as Philadelphia) it is just as easy to take the train as it is to fly. The pluses are that seats on trains are designed for actual human beings, not negative-two-sized runway models!

There are days when I wish I was alive during the heyday of American railroad transportation in the first half of the twentieth century. Up through World War II trains were the major mode of transportation. Automobiles were still outside the reach of many families. And air transportation was only just beginning to get off the ground (so to speak). Intercity and interstate travel was mostly done on trains. It wasn’t till after World War II that a massive effort promoted automobiles for every family. In fact, so many cars were purchased to quickly that President Eishenhower signed a law in 1956 that created today’s interstate highway system.


First edition of G.K. Warren’s “hurried compilation,” indicating the routes of the Pacific railroad surveys. The map was appended to the U.S. War Department’s official report to Congress. (1857). From American Memory.


The period of mass transit by train dates back to the first half of the nineteenth century. As the Civil War approached, the network was beginning to take shape. During the war, many advances were made in the north, while the south saw devastating destruction as the north blew up rail lines to plunge the Confederacy into disarray. After the Civil War, the railroad industry quickly gathered steam and started repairing and expanding the nationwide network or rail lines.

This enormous network had two major impacts on American society. First and foremost, Americans became even more nomadic than they had been previously. One could quickly and easily get from one point in the country in another in a few days at most. Second, it opened up more areas in the nation’s interior than had previously been easily accessible, such as many locations in the American southwest.

Massive migrations occurred in the late-nineenth and early-twentieth centuries by rail. Immigrants arriving on the east coast were easily able to travel to location in the interior of the country. African Americans know about the Great Migration that occurred in the early twentieth centuries when their ancestor relocated from the south to potentially better lives working in the factories and mills of the industrial north.

If your ancestors “disappear” for a time while relocating, look at the rail lines. How would they have gotten from point A to point B? Are there any locations along the way that would make sense for them to have stopped for awhile? Great opportunities nearby? Relatives living a short distance from the rail lines? Perhaps your ancestor even immigrated to the U.S. by rail, coming in through Canada or Mexico?

Well, time to close for another day. I have finished the delicious steak dinner with creme brulee for desert. I’ve had a cup of tea. and in just a couple of short hours, I shall be home. When my grandparents were little, I’m sure they could not have imagined a world in which one awakes in bed at 4:30 a.m. in Boston, arrives at the train station an hour later, and is in New York City by 9:40 a.m., let alone being back in Boston and in my own bed just 19 hours after waking there in the first place.