Riding the Union Pacific

Posted by Toni V.S. | 11:44 PM | 10 comments »

There’s always that scene in the Western, where the train pulls into the little depot.  Steam billows up with loud hisses as the engineer pulls back on the brake.  The conductor from the Way Car, guides passengers to the exits where they climb down the stairs and hurry off to be greeted by loved ones.  Perhaps the Marshal or the sheriff is waiting for someone, expecting a newly-released badman returning to town to even an old score, or he’s meeting that mail-order bride he finally got up enough money and gumption to bring to town.  Later, the train, on its way again, may be robbed by highwaymen.  There’s always one reckless thief who rides alongside the train and grabs the handle of a box car’s half-open door, allowing himself to be pulled from the saddle and swinging inside the train, where he makes his way to the car where the payroll safe is located.  Or—a little safer—the robbers merely break up the tracks and remove the railroad ties and the train chugs to a standstill because it had nowhere to go.  And who can forget the runaway train, whistle blaring as it plows through town before running off the trestle and plummeting into the river hundreds of feet below?

Anyone who’s seen a Western movie, an episode of Gunsmoke, or the Season One of Hell on Wheels knows exactly what I’m talking about. 


 In my current WIP, tentatively titled The Lily and the Shamrock, my heroine is sent a ticket to Nebraska by her brother.  Chafing under his guardian’s tyranny, New Orleans scion Philippe DuVal has run away from home.  He promises his sister, Angelique, he’ll send for her as soon as he finds work, though Philippe, as a rich man’s son, has no manual training whatsoever. He has the optimism of the young, though, and has been at odds with his uncle for some time, so rebellion sets in.  While Philip slaves away on a ranch just outside Lincoln, in the meantime, Uncle Claud fritters away Philippe’s inheritance at Seamus Brady’s gambling hall.  When Seamus calls in his markers, Claud, knowing the gambler wants to get a foothold in New Orleans society, to become “respectable,” offers marriage to Angelique if he’ll cancel his debts.  Angelique, of course, wants nothing to do with the uncouth Brady whose activities border on the criminal but she’s completely helpless without her brother to protect her, since Claude is her guardian, also.  Philippe’s ticket to Nebraska arrives just in time.  Now, all Angelique has to do is find a way to get to the station before Uncle Claud and Brady can stop her.

 At the Durham Museum in Omaha, Union Pacific is well-represented.  Not only was the Museum once the Union Station for seven railroads, among them the UP, but in its basement, it houses a complete train, from Way Car (what we civilians call a caboose) to the Engine.  Tourists can climb into the cars and go through them.

So let’s buy our ticket and climb aboard.

First, the ticket: A book of tickets, rather…  About four by five inches, the bright blue center design says quite plainly “Train Ticket.”  Surrounding that in a decorative border are, at the top, the months of the year and beside them the days of the month and the year as well as the direction the train would be traveling…East or West.  Below, at the bottom are the names of cities, St. Louis, Omaha… There’s a serial number, a book and ticket number.  The book has instructions on how the ticket has to be punched before being removed from the book and which half was to be given to the passenger.  There are also more important admonitions:  No excess fare to be collected.  Ticket non-redeemable.  Fare is paid for Continuous Passage to Destination on Designated Train for Designated City as specified and for no Other.

Inside the passenger car:

The first thing one notices is how small the seating is.  There were two rows of seats, 24 seats in each row, in pairs facing each other, with a window, but the entire seat is barely four feet long, though nicely upholstered.  These were the “plain” passenger cars.  The Pullman car or “sleeping” car, had three separate sleeping arrangements.  The first was a fixed platform located above the seats.  Passengers utilizing these undressed in a central bathroom, walked back to their berth, and climbed into it via a portable ladder.  The bed was about six feet long and five feet wide, with only about two feet clearing head-space.
In my novel, Philippe doesn’t have enough money to buy his sister a sleeping berth, so poor Angelique has to sleep sitting up the entire trip!

The second type of accommodation was a “single” sleeping arrangement.  An enclosed seat, with a small toilet and wash stand.  The seat folded down into a bed, covering the toilet.  One had to stand in the hall while the attendant did this.  Then the passenger either made that quick trip to the washroom to change into his sleepwear or shut the door and do it while sitting on the bed.

The third bed was the one people generally think of…an enclosed “stateroom” with a full length bench seat which could probably hold three people.  About three feet across from this was a full-length counter with sink and washstand, a door to one side leading to the toilet.  Above the bench seat, the bed was tucked inside a locked compartment.  It contained a folding ladder and a webbing across the head of the bed to prevent the sleeper from being tossed out if the train made a sudden stop or a swift curve on the track.

In later trains, there was also a “smoking car”, complete with bar where people drank and—surprise!—smoked.  The dining car looked exactly like a dining room in a home, with a central table and many chairs, and a chandelier.  Trains having a dining car also had a separate kitchen car equipped with chefs.


The passageways leading from each car to the next were very narrow, with only room to walk single-file, and only about twenty-eight inches wide.  The metal platforms at the end of each car, connecting it to the next were barely two feet wide.  Remember all those scenes where some bigwig, accompanied by five or six people, stands on the caboose’s platform and make speeches to a crowd.  Couldn’t  happen.  And that confrontation between the hero and the villain in the same spot?  There certainly wouldn’t have been any fistfights in that tight space!


The engine part of the locomotive filled most of the space allotted the engineer and fireman.  To each side of the engine, there was a small seat about 12 inches square built into the wall where the fireman and the engineer sat, the engineer on the right, where he could grab the hand brake, if necessary, the fireman on the left where he could shovel in the coal.  There was a small walkway on the outside of the right side of the train, from the engine to the front of the train, a narrow catwalk on which to maneuver if one of the valves on the side of the locomotive needed adjusting while the train was in motion.


On the front of the train was the metal grill of the cowcatcher, not so much designed to catch anything but to knock out of the way any object on the tracks.

A steam engine could go as fast as 50 mph, and could travel 300 miles in one day.

Looking at Thomas “Doc” Durant’s luxurious car in the TV series, one envies him his drawing room, dining room, and built-in bathroom, as well as all the other features the common passenger of a steam train couldn’t afford.  Seeing something on TV or on the movie screen magnifies the size and gives an illusion of greater depth and width, but seeing the real thing shows exactly how much space those early train travelers didn’t have.

(Pictures:  Top:  Union Station exterior; Engine #X1243; 2 views of interior and waiting room of Terminal; Omaha Terminal poster;  "common" passenger seats; Pullman car; dining car; smoking car; statues by John Labja:  Sailor and Soldier, Sweethearts, the New Arrival, Reading the Train Schedules.) 


  1. Pamela Varnado // May 4, 2012 at 7:50 AM  

    Morning, Toni,
    I enjoyed reading your post about trains. I even learned something new. For some reason, I thought the dining car had a series of small tables, not one large central table. Interesting fact considering most people seemed suspicious of each other back then, especially on trains. Did you know that the Wild West is considered the most violent time period in American history? Train robberies, shoot outs ...

    There's no train in the movie, The Outsider, but it's my favorite western movie. I can imagine Lily's excitement as she rode the train on her way to meet her brother. The Lily and the Shamrock sounds like it's a winner. Good luck with the story.

  2. Scarlet Pumpernickel // May 4, 2012 at 12:26 PM  

    Great post Toni, loaded with info. Good luck with the new wip! Sounds like a winner.

  3. Alison E. Bruce // May 4, 2012 at 1:18 PM  

    Hi Toni1
    You've got some wonderful photos with your blog. They really bring your words to life.

  4. Alethea Williams // May 4, 2012 at 1:32 PM  

    Nice post on the Union Pacific, celebrating 150 years. Thanks for the history lesson.

  5. Toni V.S. // May 4, 2012 at 1:43 PM  

    Thanks, folks. I enjoyed the trip and taking the pix, too.

  6. Mary Ricksen // May 4, 2012 at 2:47 PM  

    I love trains. When I was a kid we went from NY to Burlington, Vt on an overnite train. My sister was above me and peed the bed. I got wet, it was not the best nite I've had!
    But I loved the experience minus the pee!
    They are such a historical and romantic mode of transportation!

  7. Mary Marvella // May 4, 2012 at 11:13 PM  

    What a great post, Toni. I have seen many Westerns with trains, but I didn't get the true perspective. So much good info here.

    Another awesome story you have here.

  8. Mary Marvella // May 4, 2012 at 11:13 PM  

    Mary R, you made me laugh out loud! You must tell us more!

  9. Josie // May 5, 2012 at 9:09 AM  

    Such an interesting post. So well thought-out, and the pictures were worth another one thousand words.

  10. Judy // May 6, 2012 at 8:19 AM  

    Toni, As usual you've come up with an interesting post. Love the plot for your new book! Can't wait to read it!