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
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 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.
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.
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.”
. . . 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.
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.