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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Take a Ride on the Immigrant Train, advance token to the nearest Railroad, if you pass the Mississippi, collect the American Dream

Early On
The first immigrants settled where their ships landed (the frontier was a dangerous place). By the mid-19th Century, immigrants arriving on the east coast of the United States and Canada began to venture westward with everything they owned to the great plains of North America. The best time to arrive at the American coast was in May. This would allow the immigrants to journey to the interior lands during the summer months.
Fill the Land
After the Louisiana Purchase (1803) and the Lewis and Clark explorations (1805-1807), the U.S. Government began to realize how valuable the land west of the Mississippi was. There were millions of acres available for farming, timber, and mining. Jefferson quickly understood the opportunities as did Madison, Monroe, and Adams. But each man also knew there was a problem. Only a few thousand families migrated from the east coast each year; not nearly enough to develop this land to the fullest.
Over the next 35 years, Congress relaxed immigration laws to entice foreign immigration which. By 1850 immigration increased moderately but still tended to be bound to the sea coast. The problem shifted from one of a lack of people to one of no efficient and quick way to get those people to the west. 
After the nation’s preoccupation of the Civil War, addressing this problem intensified. A system of railroads had to be built regardless of the cost. The cost was in the range of $15,000 per mile (on level land) up to $50,000 per mile (in mountainous terrain). No railroad companies were eager to start construction without having some concessions from the government. The solution: the U.S. government gave over 155 million acres to the railroads and with the right to sell it for profit. No one was concerned that the land had already been promised to the Native Americans. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
The Promises
The problem now shifted to the railroads. In order to sell as much of this land as possible, the railroads had to compete for immigrants. So they covered Europe with advertising promoting the American Dream of religious freedom, upward mobility, and cheap fertile land. So why did so many immigrants choose the U.S. and not countries closer to their homes? Well, there was genuine opportunity and freedom, too. But mostly it was good advertising. The Burlington Northern Railroad alone had over 850 agents roaming Europe selling the virtues of life in the United States.
“A Congressional report in the early 1870’s estimated that every foreign laborer landing on our shores was economically valued at $1,500. The report stated that in less than ten years, these people would add $4.8 billion to the wealth of the nation” (“Across America on an Emigrant Train”).
The plan was simple. After the first wave of immigrants settled in the west, they would write to relatives (and friends) still in Europe and have them follow in their footsteps. It worked so well that this pattern lasted into the early 20th Century.
Riding the Immigrant Train
“Immigrant Trains” (sometimes called Emigrant Trains) ran from the east coast port cities to the railroad’s “company-owned” lands in the west. Some were also operated to California as well.
Cost-conscious, long distance travelers utilized the immigrant trains because the fare from Omaha to San Francisco was only $33.20 (in 1870), and it was easier and safer than travelling overland in wagon trains.
In 1879, a young Scottish author-to-be, Robert Louis Stevenson, arrived in New York. He was headed to California to meet up with a young lady he had fallen in love with in France, Fanny Osbourne. He decided to travel across America as an immigrant. He kept a journal of his experiences which included his story of riding the “Immigrant Train” as a third class passenger. This later became a book entitled “Across The Plains” (the middle volume of his trilogy on his American travels).
Stevenson discovered that the equality he found so prevalent in America did not extend down to these third-class passengers. American attitudes toward immigrants ranged from hostile to patronizing. Stevenson described the native citizen’s view of immigrant’s as being “wild and strange denizens of another world.”
“It was about two in the afternoon on Friday that I found myself in front of the Emigrant House, with more than a hundred others, to be sorted and boxed for the journey. A white-haired official, with a stick under one arm, and a list in the other hand, stood apart in front of us, and called name after name in the tone of a command. At each name you would see a family gather up its brats and bundles and run for the hindmost of the three cars that stood awaiting us, and I soon concluded that this was to get set apart for the women and children. The second or central car, it turned out, was devoted to men travelling alone, and the third to the Chinese.
. . . an American railroad-car, that long, narrow wooden box, like a flat-roofed Noah’s ark, with a stove and a convenience, one at either end, a passage down the middle, and transverse benches upon either hand. Those (cars) destined for emigrants on the Union Pacific are only remarkable for their extreme plainness, nothing but wood entering in any part into their constitution, and for the usual inefficacy of the lamps, which often went out and shed but a dying glimmer even when they burned.” (R.L. Stevenson)
In cold weather, riders huddled around the stove in an attempt to stay warm. They sat uncomfortably in hot weather because windows often had to stay shut to keep out the dust.
 “The benches are too short for anything but a young child. Where there is scarce elbow-room for two to sit, there will not be space enough for one to lie. The (railroad) company’s servants have conceived a plan for the better accommodation of travelers. They prevail on every two to chum together. To each of the chums they sell a board and three square cushions stuffed with straw, and covered with thin cotton. The benches can be made to face each other in pairs, for the backs are reversible. On the approach of night the boards are laid from bench to bench, making a couch wide enough for two, and long enough for a man of middle height; and the chums lie downside by side upon the cushions. When the train is full, of course this plan is impossible.” (R.L. Stevenson) 
While food was available when the train would stop, there could be very long stretches between the stops. Many families ran short on food. To add to the immigrants’ fears, when the train pulled out of a station, the conductors frequently did not yell “all aboard,” so these third-class passengers had to pay close attention to their train, or be left behind.
Stevenson said, when near to his California destination, “Few people have praised God more happily than I did.” His journal stands today as an exceptional study of the complexity of class, race, and gender.
Later on, for wealthier families with possessions, there were box cars for farm equipment, furniture, etc. Cows and horses were carried in a stock car (one adult could ride for free if they took care of the animals). By the late 1880’s some of the railroads had improved immigrant train service, adding sleeping cars and direct express service with fewer stops.

Across The Plains,” Robert Louis Stevenson, published 1895. (the middle volume of his American travels trilogy, generally known as “The Amateur Emigrant,” written in 1879)

Across America on an Emigrant Train,” Jim Murphy, Clarion Books, 1993.

The Gilded Age,” Joel Shrock, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.

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