The 1890s

Dreiser shows a young woman's progress from rural Wisconsin, through Chicago to the New York theater as a series of train rides, and compares Chicago's open network of tracks with the physical limits of Manhattan island. Jewett points to the expansion of railroads into rural New England. Cooper and DuBois describe the effects of segregated trains on blacks in the South; Brown's poem is a chain-gang song. The stories by Chopin cover the range of carriage and boat Systems in rural Louisiana, while Dunbar-Nelson pictures the New Orleans docks. Crane's scenes range from New York's noisy congestion to a small Texas town where the railroad brings in the trappings of eastern culture. Anderson presents the train as a young man's path out of rural Ohio to Chicago while also outlining carriage and buggy activities within the town; Cather covers similar themes and events in Nebraska; while Wharton shows fairly extensive reliance on the railroad between Massachusetts towns. Norris' portrait of San Francisco in McTeague includes the cable car as well as long-distance railways up the coast, while The Octopus is a detailed history and exposé of political corruption and social tragedy created by the railroad monopoly in the Central Valley and its links to the San Francisco street railways. Cather evokes the charm of the buckboard's slow pace across Nebraska, in contrast with the train and automobile which had arrived by the 1920s.


Author: Theodore Dreiser (1871-1945)

Title: Sister Carrie

Date: 1900

Systems: Train, carriage

Context: 1889-mid 1890s, Chicago and New York city

Two train rides punctuate Carrie's run on fame and riches, one into Chicago as an eighteen-year-old kid from Wisconsin, and one into New York as the mistress of a married embezzler. Even though she is on the train, "To be sure there was always the next station" (Ch. 1) and, later, "'I want you to go away from me. I am going to get out at the very next station'" (Ch. 28).

The parallels and differences in Carrie's relationships with her "sponsors," Charles Drouet in Chicago and Mr. Hurstwood in New York, are a major part of the novel, and they are echoed on a minor scale in the details with which Dreiser draws the settings. In Chicago, the railroad companies "had seized upon vast tracks of land for transfer and shipping purposes. Street-car lines had been extended far out into the open country in anticipation of rapid growth" (Ch. 2). New York, or, more precisely, Manhattan, is narrow and constrained: "After her experience with Chicago, she expected long lines of cars - a great highway of tracks - and noted the difference. The sight of a few boats in the Harlem and more in the East River tickled her young heart. It was the first sign of the great sea. Next came a plain street with five-story brick flats, and then the train plunged into the tunnel." She asks, "'Where is the residential part?'" (Ch. 29).

In Chicago, before she is set up in an apartment with Drouet, her wages are so low that she cannot afford the 60¢ a week fare for the horse-car. After her first successes on the New York stage, the manager arranges for her to have a carriage between the theater and the Waldorf.

After Hurstwood embezzles $10,000 from his company, he tricks Carrie into getting on the train to Montreal with him. She first thinks he is just taking her across town, but then is amazed to find them on the way to Detroit, a place she seems not to have heard about (Ch. 28). "To the untravelled, territory other than their own familiar heath is invariably fascinating. Next to love, it is the one thing which solaces and delights.… There is a world of accumulated feeling back of the trite dramatic expression - 'I am going away'" (Ch. 29).

In New York, after Hurstwood loses his job, runs through his cash, and fails (often) to get new work, he does a three-day stint as a scab during a Knights of Labor strike against the Brooklyn trolley line. Dreiser gives his typically generous amount of detail on the reasons for the strike. The wages had changed from $2 a day to a system whereby "trippers" were hired during peak hours at 25¢ a run and the total number of drivers went down. Hurstwood is given a day's training to run the electric car, then goes out with police protection which fails in the face of a mob. He is beaten up, shot (Ch. 40). Carrie leaves him in the next chapter.

A final train ride involves Hurstwood's ex-wife, daughter, and her husband on the way from Chicago to the young couple's two-week steamboat trip to Rome, "On an incoming vestibuled Pullman, speeding at forty miles an hour through the snow of the evening." They wait comfortably to take a meal in the dining car, in a scene placed between those of Mr. Hurstwood stumbling on the Bowery streets from settlement house to soup kitchen (Ch. 47).

Although he makes nothing of it, Dreiser gives one of the rare scenes where a someone actually learns how to operate a carriage. Hurstwood teaches Carrie how to drive through the streets of Chicago (Ch. 13).

Edition used: New York: Library of America, 1987.



Author: Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909)

Title: "The Courting of Sister Wisby" In Tales of New England

Date: 1894

Systems: Trains

Context: Probably contemporary, New England

Mrs. Goodsoe, an elderly herbalist, talks about her mother's knowledge of herbal healing, much of which had died with her. She says that folk were meant to be "doctored with the stuff that grew right about 'em…. That was before the whole population took to livin' on wheels, the way they do now." Living on wheels is parallel to the telegraph, so Goodsoe's perspective may go back to her youth in the 1840s or so. The narrator claims, in defense of her generation, that "the cars [trains?] and telegraph have given people more to interest them." In the framed story about Wisby, the deacon has a wagon to carry him around the region, or he rides in another man's "hoss-cart."

Edition used: Eugene Current-Garcia and Bert Hitchcock, eds. American Short Stories, 5th ed. Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1990.



Author: Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964)

Title: "Woman vs. The Indian" In A Voice from the South

Date: 1892

Systems: Railroad

Context: Contemporary, Washington D. C., African-American perspective

"There can be no true test of national courtesy without travel... Moreover, the weaker and less influential the experimenter, the more exact and scientific the deductions."

Anna Julia Cooper hereby transforms scientific method into rhetorical strategy, even as she declares rail travel the surest means of testing the character of the American people. Because she, "The Black Woman of the South," is the least prone to receive preferential treatment on board a train (treatment owing to great financial or political influence, that is), she herself is the perfect "touchstone of American courtesy."

Like a good student of science, Cooper records her observations and experiences on the railroad and carefully draws conclusions that invert the contemporary meanings of "primitive" and "civilized." Her argument opens by contrasting the experiences of white and black female travelers. She notes that "some American girls ... in search of novelty and adventure, were taking an extended trip through our country unattended by gentleman friends; their wish was to write up for a periodical or lecture the ease and facility, the comfort and safety of American travel, even for the weak and unprotected, under our well-nigh perfect railroad Systems and our gentlemanly and efficient corps of officials and public servants."

She counters with her own experience of watching "woman after woman" assisted from train to platform, only to see the "gentlemanly and efficient" conductors "deliberately fold their arms and turn round when the Black Woman's turn came to alight." So too she records her perplexity when confronting the "two dingy little rooms" at the station "with 'FOR LADIES' swinging over one and 'FOR COLORED PEOPLE' over the other; while wondering under which head I come." At another point, while being hustled from one car into the colored car by a surly conductor, she observes chain-gangs with "squads of boys aged 14 through 18" working outside, along the rails ("not in 1850, but in 1890, and 91 and 92").

"What a field for the missionary woman!" she declares, noting on the flyleaf of her memorandum, "The women in this section should organize a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Human Beings, and disseminate civilizing tracts." This ironic play with the rhetoric of the period turns more serious as she writes, "I forbear to mention instances of personal violence to colored women travelling in less civilized sections of our country, where women have been forcibly ejected from cars, thrown out of seats, their garments rudely torn, their person wantonly and cruelly injured."

Edition used: Schomburg Library Edition, New York: Oxford UP, 1988.



Author: William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963)

Title: The Souls of Black Folk

Date: 1903

Systems: Train, buggy

Context: 1890s, Georgia, African-American perspective

The chapter DuBois devotes to a train ride from Atlanta to Albany, Georgia amply demonstrates the poetic and rhetorical force of this landmark work. In this study of the post-Civil War South, W.E.B. DuBois departs from his earlier scientific work on the American Negro; here he imbues his historical and sociological data with a lyrical fervor.

For instance he precedes the demographic and economic statistics of Chapter 6, with a long meditation on the Georgia landscape in Chapter 5. Using the progress of a train to frame the rhetorical movement of his essay, DuBois creates a view of the American landscape that blends the picturesque with the ethnographic, historical and speculative. Here's a representative rhetorical moment:

Out of the North the train thundered, and we woke to see the crimson soil of Georgia stretching away bare and monotonous right and left. Here and there lay straggling, unlovely villages ... yet we did not nod, nor weary of the scene; for this is historic ground. Right across our track, three hundred years ago, wandered the cavalcade of Hernando de Soto, looking for gold...(Ch. 7).

DuBois goes on to rework travelogue, making the view from the train a view of America's present and past. Thus he weaves a history of the land into his description, rehearsing the legacy of competing Amerindian, African American and Anglo claims to that same land.

DuBois here borrows a tactic used by Anna Julia Cooper, and Harriet Jacobs before her. All these writers make the train ride into a tool of social criticism. For all of them, the train becomes some sort of standard by which to measure American society. DuBois is less concerned than Cooper and Jacobs with the treatment of African Americans (particularly women) on board a train. His emphasis is more ethnographic; watching from within the train, and later from within a buggy, he takes notes on all he observes: "I remember wheeling around a bend in the road beside a graceful bit of forest and a singing brook. A long low house faced us, with porch and flying pillars, great oaken door, and a broad lawn shining in the evening sun. But the window-panes were gone, the pillars were worm-eaten..." (Ch. 7).

However, he is careful to set himself in opposition to a less knowledgeable sort of observer:

To the car-window sociologist, to the man who seeks to understand and know the South by devoting the few leisure hours of a holiday trip to unravelling the snarl of centuries, - to such men very often the whole trouble with the black field-hand may be summed up by Aunt Ophelia's word, 'Shiftless!' (Ch. 8).

DuBois's object is to go beyond the surface interpretation, the immediate judgment. Rather he reinterprets the familiar signs of rural poverty by exploring the economic, historical and cultural sources of that poverty.

Edition used: In Three Negro Classics. New York: Avon, 1965.



Author: Sterling Brown (1901-1989)

Title: "Southern Road" In Southern Road

Date: 1932

Systems: Roadway

Context: Late 19th century, African-American perspective

The title poem falls in the middle of Brown's volume and lends significance to the collection which is in keeping with the artistic renaissance of the 20s and 30s in which "new negro" literati (many in Northern urban centers) were quite consciously journeying back to their historical and spiritual roots in Southern slave and farm culture. Whereas other Harlem Renaissance poets experimented with blues rhythm, dialect, and the spiritual, Brown here does he the poet calls attention to the history of that sentimentalized southern roads. Quite literally as well as figuratively, the forced labor of black persons laid the foundation for the "new Negro" and his or her northern migration.

The poem becomes the song of the chain gang. Though it never mentions the road itself, the southern road is the implied occasion of the song, and it symbolizes an eternal occupation:

Swing dat hammer - hunh - 
Steady, bo';
Ain't no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

So too, the road and the work symbolize a relationship between white and black that is just as eternal, a relationship which, for the singer, is a hell of its own.

Doubleshackled - hunh -  Chain gang
nevah - hunh - 
Guard behin' Let me go;
Doubleshackled - hunh -  Chain gang
nevah - hunh - 
Guard behin'; Let me go;
Ball an' chain, bebby, Po' los' boy, bebby,
On my min'. Evahmo'....
White man tell me - hunh - 
Damn yo' soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Edition used: Boston: Beacon, 1974.



Author: Kate Chopin (1851-1904)

Title: Short stories

Date: 1890s

Systems: Carriage road, packet and steam boat, railroad

Context: Contemporary, Louisiana

Chopin's stories depict, in a matter-of-fact manner, the many ways people can get around in the complex Louisiana environment.

The title character of "Ozème's Holiday" (1896) has his standard week off from his job on the plantation. In October he borrows one man's buckboard, another's old gray mare, and a harness from "the negro Sévérin." He sets out to realize a plan to visit friends and relations along the Cane River. At his first contemplated stop he learns that the people he'd like to see are out, so, "he turned away from the river, and entered the road that led between two fields back to the woods and into the heart of the country." Mistake - his Aunt Tildy has her arm in a sling and is hobbling, yet her cotton is ready to be picked - so Ozème spends his time in the cotton field, and he lies to his boss that he had decided against following the river and went camping in the woods instead. There seems to be a contrast between following the river valleys as a path with some freedom or going across the countryside and being caught in family obligations.

"Athénaïse" (1895) charts a series of separations between the title character and her new husband, Cazeau. The first escape on horseback is ten miles away to her parents' house. After a brief return, Cazeau tolerates her visit to New Orleans, since he cannot be the "keeper of a dungeon" (Ch. 5). To get there her brother sees her on the St. Louis and Shreveport packet to the mouth of the Red River where she catches the first south-bound steamer for the city (Ch. 6). After a month she decides to return home; Mr. Gouvernail, her New Orleans acquaintance hires a carriage to take her to the railway station, buys her ticket and makes sure she gets into a "comfortable section" for the ride. "The fair sight of the country unfolding itself before her was balm to her vision and to her soul. She was charmed with the rather unfamiliar, broad, clean sweep of the sugar plantations.… There were sudden glimpses of a bayou curling between sunny, grassy banks…" (Ch. 11). When she reaches the station at night, her brother picks her up in his buggy, the rural counterpart of the urban carriage. The boat ride is appropriate for the escape, while the train is proper for her return to her husband's welcoming arms.

"Charlie" (1900) opens with a striking image of a "little stern-wheeler," moving past the Labordes' house, "puffing and sputtering, making more commotion than a man-o'-war as she rounded the bend. The river was almost under the window - just on the other side of the high green levee." The levee system is presented as an ordinary part of the Louisiana landscape. This boat delivers Charlotte's (Charlie's) new bicycle, "the wheel," which is unpacked and adjusted under the live oak, while "Charlie had traded her old wheel with Uncle Ruben for an afflicted pony" (Ch. 1). The bicycle is a sign of Charlie's independent spirit, an attitude which leads her father to sending her to boarding school, on the stern-wheeler (Ch. 3). As with "Athénaïse," when really efficient travel is needed - in this case, for Charlie to get home after her father is hurt in an industrial accident - people take the train (Ch. 5).

In the beginning of "The Story of an Hour" (1894), Mrs. Mallard is brought word from the local newspaper office that her husband has been killed in a "railroad disaster." While she is at first distraught, as she sits alone in her room she slowly comes to realize the freedom she will now have, and rejoices in the thought of the many days ahead which will be entirely "her own." But as she comes downstairs, carrying herself "like a goddess of Victory," her husband (who "had been far from the scene of the accident, and did not even know there had been one") opens the front door, a "little travel-stained" but quite alive. Mrs. Mallard, who we have learned has "heart trouble," is struck dead by the sight.

Editions used: "Ozème's Holiday," Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists: 1850-1910. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992; "The Story of an Hour,""Athénaïse" and "Charlie," The Awakening and Selected Stories of Kate Chopin. New York, New American Library, 1976.



Author: Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875-1935)

Title: "Mr. Baptiste" In The Goodness of St. Rocque

Date: 1899

Systems: Shipping docks

Context: Contemporary, New Orleans

Mr. Baptiste, an old Creole, hangs around the levee, especially the Texas and Pacific warehouses where the Morgan-line steamships dock. These ships do the major part of the fruit trade between New Orleans and Central and South America. Baptiste collects over-ripe baskets of fruit which cannot be sold to dealers and sells them locally. At one time, he gets in the middle of a strike by longshoremen, cotton-yardmen, and stevedores. Ships are backed up in the harbor, mules and cotton-drays wait on the levee. A White Star steamer has hired black scabs to load cotton. When the strikers throw a machine which compresses the bales into the hold of the ship, the strike-breakers are "infuriated at their loss, for those costly machines belong to the laborers and not to the ship-owners." The Negroes throw bricks and pieces of iron at the strikers, Baptiste cheers them on and is killed by a brick. This short story gives a glimpse of labor unions and agitation, racism, and consequences when people take sides.

Edition used: Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists: 1850-1910. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.



Author: Stephen Crane (1871-1900)

Title: Short works

Date: 1893-1900

Systems: Street car - horse-drawn, elevated train, electric street car

Context: Contemporary, New York City, Florida, Texas, Nebraska

"Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" (1893) has a chapter which describes brother Jimmie's job as a truck driver. We hear about his defiance of the police, his noisy negotiation through traffic, and the madness of pedestrians ("pestering flies") who dash in front of his truck. The front platform of street cars need special attention as do the rushing horse-drawn fire engine (Ch. 4). The chapter is pure background or local color, since Jimmie's trade has no apparent effect on his character or on the plot.

Most of Crane's New York stories begin with a couple of setting paragraphs on the weather, the crowds, and the city streets. And, especially, sounds. In "George's Mother" (1896) we hear, lyrically, that "A roar of wheels and a clangor of bells came from this point, interwoven into a sound emblematic of the life of the city." This is the poorer part of New York City where the elevated trains run overhead and the horse cars below. Noise is always present, the rattle of wheels over cobbles ("Maggie"), the thundering and roaring "L" ("A Great Mistake" 1898), the "musical rumble" of carriages on asphalt in contrast to a truck wagon which "roared thunderously" ("An Ominous Baby" 1894). In the winter snowstorms the street car horses slip "in the spongy brown mess that lay between the rails," the manure, which is augmented by water dripping from the "L" ("The Men in the Storm" 1894).

In "Maggie" we get a scene of the theater letting out in the rain. Two rows of cars are on either side of the street with a dozen cabs also waiting. These are hailed by some of the men, while the rest of the crowd go to the "L" station. As Maggie walks toward the river, and her suicide, "the street cars jingled with a sound of merriment" (Ch. 17).

In January 1897 a gun running boat, the Commodore, sank off the Florida coast and Crane and three others were at sea in a small boat for several days until they were rescued. Crane's newspaper account, "Stephen Crane's Own Story" lies in the background of his famous story, "The Open Boat" (1898). It emphasizes the irony of the modern, oil-fueled steamer which flounders and sinks within sight of a lighthouse. In "The Open Boat" version the men wish for and then jerry-rig a sail, a regression to an older technology. Men on the shore, one riding a bicycle, wave to the four who mistake a hotel omnibus for a rescue boat in their confusion. The retreat from the modern ends where, later, a man on the shore swims out to help; he is "naked - naked as a tree in winter; but a halo was about his head, and he shone like a saint."

"The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky" (1898) is a parody of the classic Western gunfight where the (alcoholic) bad guy backs down from his ritualistic, ineffective shootout with the (strong, taciturn) marshall, here because the marshall got himself married. The bride heralds the arrival of East coast civilization to Yellow Sky, Texas. To emphasize the portability of that civilization, the opening scene is on the Pullman from San Antonio with the young couple uncomfortable in their formal, city clothes. The thousand mile trip across Texas stops only four times; Yellow Sky is a water stop. They marvel at the parlor car, then on to the dining car with the "finest meal in the world" for one dollar (a day's wages for a working man). The coach has "dazzling fittings" - "sea-green figured velvet" and frescoes in olive and silver on the ceiling. The black porter views them "with an amused and superior grin." The train's schedule is exact - due in at 3:42; in town, the men in the bar know that the California express on the Southern Railway is due in 21 minutes. If the town had known about the marriage they would have had the brass band out to greet the bride and marshal when he arrived. The tale thus links domesticity, modernity, and the train all settling the West and moving it from its gun totin' past.

"The Blue Hotel" (1899) starts with the arrival of three men at the Palace Hotel, Fort Ranger, Nebraska, in a winter story. The train has a "snow-crusted engine" which pulls many freight cars and one coach. This traveller's hotel with the pretentious name stands between the station and the town. The alighting passengers are a Swede, a bronzed cowboy from the Dakota line, and a "little silent man from the East"; they are escorted to the hotel by its Irish owner - these ethnic lines are emphasized frequently, so the story illustrates the facility of the railroads to bring peoples together in the middle of the country. Another railside industry shows up during a bar scene at the end of the story where a professional gambler found unwary rail travelers (and reckless farmers) to be his source of income.

"The Monster" (1899) starts with Little Jimmie Trescott playing as engine number 36 between Syracuse and Rochester until the wheel of his cart runs into the flower bed (Ch. 1). His sometime companion is Henry Johnson, the black hostler who cares for Dr. Trescott's horses and buggy, the vehicle used for his medical visits. Along the way in the story we briefly meet a railway brakeman and an engineer, whose roles echo the symbolism from the opening scene. The town boasts a "shrill electric street-car, the motor singing like a cageful of grasshoppers" (Ch. 3), but, curiously, the fire engines are pulled by groups of four men, not by horse or machine (Ch. 5).

Johnson is mistaken for a Pullman-car porter by whites in the barber shop (Ch. 3); in another story, "The Knife" (1900), porters are presented as being the pinnacle of black success.

Crane occasionally uses these Systems metaphorically. The "whirling snows acted as drivers, as men with whips" ("The Men in the Storm"). The elevated train station has pillars like "some monstrous kind of crab squatting over the street" ("An Experiment in Misery" 1894). The general conceit of men is explained in "The Blue Hotel" to be "the very engine of life" (Ch. 8). A black minor character in "The Monster" has his weekly fee for tending the badly scarred Johnson increased from $5 to $6, and his "mind seemed to be a balloon" (Ch. 15).

Edition used: New York: Viking Portable, 1969.



Author: Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)

Title: Winesburg, Ohio

Date: 1919 Written: 1915

Systems: Railroad, carriages and wagons

Context: 1890s, rural Ohio

Anderson creates a small town in northern Ohio where George Willard, the local reporter, hears about the secret lives of many of the townsfolk. The final chapter shows Willard catching the 7:45 AM train (from Cleveland) to Chicago to start his adult life. Tom Winton, the conductor, has seen "a thousand George Willards go out of the towns to the city," since his long career has let him know people in towns along the road quite well.

Partly to anticipate this conclusion, we are made aware of the railroad's presence in at least three quarters of the score of tales in the book. We learn about the train's schedules and whether the Cleveland train is late or not, and we hear the whistle blast from a passenger train. Virginia Richmond ("The Thinker") commutes daily to the county seat where she is a court stenographer. Her son and two other boys hop a freight to a town fair 40 miles away and don't return for a week. The berry harvest is taken by wagon to two "express cars" parked on a siding. A man, who was a painter for the "Big Four" RR lived in a box car, committed suicide by lying on the tracks ("The Philosopher"); another man got drunk and drove his horse carriage down the tracks and was killed ("The Untold Lie"). Enoch Robinson as an art student in New York City was hit and injured by a streetcar there ("Loneliness").

Within the town which George Willard leaves, the main way to get around is by wagon. The Presbyterian minister and a large landowner, Jesse Bentley, own their own; Elizabeth Willard keeps her buggy and pony at a livery stable. Two young couples rent carriages from the livery stable - Ned Curry and Alice Hindman have sex in a field after a drive in the country ("Adventure"), but Ed Handby is not successful in seducing Belle Carpenter on a similar occasion ("An Awakening"). Wagons are sometimes dangerous. A frightened team of horses threw and killed a little girl ("The Philosopher"). When the mud roads freeze in the winter, there's good sleighing ("The Teacher").

The narrator, while commenting infrequently on most of the events, gives an occasional historical perspective. "Godliness" traces a family back to before the Civil War when Ohio highways were mud in spring and most of the winter. The Bentleys drive their three-seated wagon to town to buy goods and get drunk; later Jesse gets a bicycle to go to town. Changes in peoples' lives in the past fifty years (up to 1915?) included trains, the "interurban car" and the automobile, along with the growth of cities, migration, and industrialization. "In those days," we are told in "A Man of Ideas," "the Standard Oil Company did not deliver oil to the consumer in big wagons and motor trucks as it does now." No autos or trucks appear in the stories though.

Edition used: New York: Viking Critical Library, 1966.



Author: Willa Cather (1876-1947)

Title: O Pioneers!

Date: 1913

Systems: Wagon, train

Context: 1880-1900, Nebraska

The novel starts thirty years ago, i.e., about 1883, on the deeply-rutted main street of Hanover, Nebraska which runs from the "squat red railway station" and grain elevator to the lumber yard and horse pond. The street itself has two rows of wooden buildings and board sidewalks; there are many work horses hitched to farm wagons while people shop in town. Near dusk the farm people, including the main character, Alexandra, head home - she uses a lantern for the final push after nightfall, "a moving point of light along the highway." Out of town, "the roads were but faint tracks in the grass" (Ch. 1: 1, 2).

Most of the book takes place around the turn of the century. Hanover now has telephones, painted (not sod) farm houses, big red barns with windows, and wind mills. The region is clearly relaxed and prosperous. Despite these changes the pattern of horse-driven use is the same, and the train is still a remote part of peoples' lives. One scene which illustrates the prosperity is Carl Lindstrom, Alexandra's admirer, who arrives in a buggy with a driver from the station. He had left his trunk at the Hanover station, since he only stays a few days (Ch. 2: 3).

The train is seen chiefly as a way to escape, in reality or dreams. In the early chapters during an economic depression one farmer sells his land for $400 and a ticket to Chicago (Ch. 1: 4). Marie Tovesky, having been put in a convent by her father, meets Frank Shabata in the Union Station, St. Louis, to get married (Ch. 2: 7). After Frank shoots Marie and her possible lover, Emil, he steals Emil's horse since he guesses he might be able to catch the train, and he has enough money to get to Omaha. Later, in his panic, he rehearses his dream that, if he gets rich, he will take his wife to California in a Pullman car (Ch. 4: 7, 8). The train is presented, then, as being extraordinary. Cather does not talk in this book about its commercial value to the farmers, even though Alexandra is aware of the role of "Wall Street" in farm prices.

Edition used: Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.



Author: Edith Wharton (1862-1937)

Title: Summer

Date: 1917

Systems: Buggy, train, streetcar

Context: Turn of the century, Rural Massachusetts

Between "the Mountain" where Charity Royall is born, North Dormer, where she is raised by her guardian, and the nearest "big" town, Nettleton we see the gradual progress toward modern values and institutions. Charity's first train ride is with a group of "the dozen girls and boys who represented the future of North Dormer [who] had been piled into a farmwaggon, driven over the hills to Hepburn, put into a way-train and carried to Nettleton." North Dormer is "a weather-beaten sunburnt village of the hills, abandoned of men, left apart by railway, trolley, telegraph, and all the forces that link life to life in modern communities" (Ch. 1). On several occasions, Mr. Royall, a lawyer and Charity's guardian, hires out his buggy to Lucius who turns out to be her lover - he actually doesn't know how to drive at the start (Ch. 6). At the Nettleton train station is a square "thronged with seedy 'hacks' and long curtained omnibuses drawn by horses with tasseled fly-nets over their withers." On this Fourth of July, Charity and Lucius take the cool trolley run to the lake. After the festivities, "the trolleys roaring out from Nettleton became great luminous serpents coiling in and out among the trees" (Ch. 9). Charity borrows a bicycle for her sexual trysts with Lucius on the outskirts of North Dormer. At the Mountain in a vain effort to be with her mother before she dies, she is picked up by a relative in a buggy, and the horse's pace is slowed to a walk because of the steep roads. (Ch. 16).

Edition used: New York: Collier Books, 1981.



Author: Frank Norris (1870-1902)

Title: McTeague: A Story of San Francisco

Date: 1899

Systems: Cable car, train

Context: Contemporary, San Francisco

McTeague is a dentist - well, not an official one; he pulls teeth for profit until the authorities close him down for not having a license. He marries Trina Sieppe after visits to her family home near Berkeley, and, after abusing and killing her, he returns to the life of a miner which he had left.

The uniquely San Francisco flavor of the urban scene is created partly by the insistent presence of the cable car: "The big market opposite the flat, the delivery carts rattling up and down, the great ladies from the avenue at their morning shopping, the cable cars trundling past, loaded with passengers" (Ch. 16). This echoes Ch. 1 where McTeague notices the daily commuter rhythm of empty and full cars, Ch. 9 where the rumble is present during the wedding, Ch. 10 where Trina watches the scene. The novel opens in a Polk Street car conductors' "coffee-joint" and McTeague's office/apartment is within hearing distance of the power house (Ch. 1).

The poor of the city, including McTeague, take the local train to the "B station" to visit friends and to have picnics, the chief Sunday activity. This is the path for his courtship. But the people are also aware of long-distance railways - McTeague's neighbor, Marcus knows when the Sacramento train is due (Ch. 5); Trina's family worries about fares and tips when they plan to remove to Los Angeles (Ch. 9); the Overland express, "with its flaming headlight, on its way across the continent" interrupts the couple's first kiss (Ch. 5). That same train takes McTeague away from the city to the mining town of Colfax after the murder (Ch. 20), and he follows the tracks to Reno as part of his escape (Ch. 21). Expecting that conductors would be able to spot him, he books passage on the caboose of a freight to the southern part of the state, since the irregular schedule will help - "At times it stopped whole half days on sidings or by water tanks, and the engineer and fireman came back to the caboose." The crew does have to fight off a gang of tramps who try to ride the brake beams (Ch. 21). After getting to the end of the railroad at Keeler, despite apparently finding gold in the hills, McTeague's effort to ride a mule across Death Valley proves fatal.

Edition used: New York: The Library of America, 1986.



Author: Frank Norris (1870-1902)

Title: The Octopus: A Story of California

Date: 1901

Systems: Railroad

Context: Contemporary, San Joaquin valley and San Francisco, California

Norris dramatizes the elaborate schemes by which the Railroad Trust gets hold of the Central Valley wheat lands and drives the ranchers out. Toward the end, he rationalizes what first seemed to be the plotting of greedy, clever men as an instance of two natural forces essentially independent of human agency.

Here's the deal. The railroad ("Pacific and Southwestern") sets the rates for shipping the harvest based, allegedly or apparently, on international markets - as Behrman, the railroad's chief operative in the Tulare ("Bonneville") region puts it, the rate is "All - the - traffic - will - bear." They promise one price before the growing season; farmers budget and borrow based on that figure. During the season they raise the shipping price and the farmers go broke (Ch. 2: 2).

The railroad monopoly seems to be under control of the elected State Railroad Commission, but Shelgrim, the rail's president controls the elections by proposing candidates. Magnus Derrick, the local political leader, with the help of a rancher's League, tries to get an honestly-elected Commission, but they are corrupted once in office (Ch. 1: 3). The corruption extends to Derrick's son, Lyman, who had sold the valley out - in the face of a mandate that all rates be cut by 10%, the reductions went to places with no grain to ship (Ch. 2: 4). Other regulations work to disadvantage the ranchers - in the opening chapters we see three cars filled with Magnus' plows absurdly moved from Guadalajara (California, not Mexico) into San Francisco and back because there's a rule that shipments can't come directly from the east - so the low Federally-set, long-haul rate is increased significantly by the short-haul rate controlled by the Pacific and Southwestern (Ch. 1: 2).

The other part of the deal involves railroad ownership and purchase of farm lands. On the grounds that the Railroad opened up new wheat lands to markets (Ch. 1: 2), it got all the odd-numbered sections (one square-mile parcels) along the route, while the Federal government retained the other half. Farmers were "invited" on the railroad's lands (Ch. 1: 3) and charged rent - at first $2.50 an acre, but, once the land became profitable, the rents went up to $27.00 for the million acres in the valley (Ch. 1: 6). This, with the rate increases drives the farmers to sell out to dummy buyers actually under Railroad control (Ch. 2: 1). By harvest time, Behrman owns most of the ranches. In the most dramatic scenes in the novel, while the locals are on their annual drive to herd all the rabbits into a corral by chasing them in front of their wagons, buggies, and buckboards, Behrman and the marshall are throwing the families out of their houses. A few members of the League, but not the mass movement hoped for, tries to ambush the marshalls, but many leaders are killed in the gunfight, thus breaking the resistance (Ch. 2: 6).

Norris sets out the issues of turn-of-the-century efforts to regulate the railroad monopoly by state and federal commissions, with corruption from both the railroad and the shipper-farmer sides through rigged elections at the state level and influence peddling at the federal level. The State government is corrupted - Trusts thrive because, in the words of Cedarquist, a San Francisco investor in ocean-going shipping, "the People allow it" through their indifference (Ch. 2: 1).

But this is a novel not a piece of economic analysis, and Norris fills the pages with characters who are variously affected, and ruined by the Trust and with images of the trains. Presley, the poet, is in a way the novel's hero, as well as its observer and commentator. The first scene shows him on a bicycle riding the bumpy roads near the Bonneville depot, and talking with Dyke, the railroad engineer. He walks near an embankment, "when, with a quivering of all the earth, a locomotive, single, unattached, shot by him with a roar, filling the air with the reek of hot oil, vomiting smoke and sparks; its enormous eye, cyclopean, red, throwing a glare far in advance, shooting by in a sudden crash of confused thunder; filling the night with the terrific clamour of its iron hoofs." This train runs down and slaughters a herd of sheep owned by one of Presley's friends, thus foreshadowing the conflict of forces (Ch. 1: 1).

Annixter's courtship of Hilma Tree takes place by a creek literally under the shadow of the Long Trestle. "From time to time, the incessant murmur of the creek, pouring over and around the larger stones, was interrupted by the thunder of trains roaring out upon the trestle overhead, passing on with the furious gallop of their hundred iron wheels, leaving in the air a taint of hot oil, acrid smoke, and reek of escaping steam." As the two realize they are in love, the Bakersfield-Fresno Overland passes, with its "chocolate coloured Pullmans, grimy with the dust of the great deserts of the Southwest" (Ch. 2: 2). After their San Francisco marriage, their special treat will be to take the Overland from the Oakland "mole" to Bonneville, even though it's due in at 5 AM. They settle in to the Pullman car and the bunk is made up, although he can't sleep. In the middle of the night the train grinds to a stop from the emergency brake, "the Westinghouse appliance," since a robber drives away the engine and express car (with the Wells Fargo box and registered mail). "Helpless, bereft of its engine, a huge, decapitated monster it lay, halfway-way around a curve, rained upon, abandoned." The engine is hooked up, and, forty minutes late, they arrive at Bonneville in the middle of a curious crowd which had heard by telegraph of the robbery (Ch. 2: 4).

The robber was Dyke, the former engineer and now failed farmer, ruined by rate changes. He escapes from the posse and other pursuers, eventually commandeering a freight engine at gunpoint in Guadalajara: "Smoke, black and boiling, shot skyward from the stack; not a joint that did not shudder with the mighty strain of the steam; but the great iron brute - one of Baldwin's newest and best - came to call, obedient and docile as soon as ever the great pulsing heart of it felt a master hand upon its levers." The sheriff wires ahead to set the switches to derail the train; Dyke spots the problem, but backs next to his pursuers and thus is finally caught (Ch. 2: 5).

The streets in Bonneville show the convergence of modern and traditional systems.

Annixter, arriving at the Post Office, found himself involved in a scene of swiftly shifting sights and sounds. Saddle horses, farm wagons - the inevitable Studebakers - buggies grey with the dust of country roads, buckboards with squashes and grocery packages stowed under the seat, two-wheeled sulkies and training carts, were hitched to the gnawed railings and zinc-sheathed telegraph poles along the curb. Here and there, on the edge of the sidewalk, were bicycles, wedged into bicycle racks painted with cigar advertisements. Upon the asphalt sidewalk itself, soft and sticky with the morning's heat, was a continuous movement.… The Yosemite 'bus and City 'bus passed up the street, on the way from the morning train… The electric car line, the city's boast, did a brisk business, its cars whirring from end to end of the street, with a jangling of bells and a moaning plaint of gearing (Ch. 1: 5).

Ultimately Presley sees that "The Railroad will prevail. The Trust will overpower us. Here in this corner of a great nation, here, on the edge of the continent, here in this valley of the West, far from the great centres, isolated, remote, lost, the great iron hand crushes life from us, crushes liberty and the pursuit of happiness from us, and our little struggles, our moment's convulsion of death agony causes not one jar in the vast, clashing machinery of the nation's life; a fleck of grit in the wheels, perhaps, a grain of sand in the cogs - the momentary creak of the axle is the mother's wail of bereavement, the wife's cry of anguish - and the great wheel turns, spinning smooth again, even again, and the tiny impediment of a second, scarce noticed, is forgotten." The train both is and symbolizes the monopoly. After the gun battle, to enforce its control over Bonneville, the Pacific and Southwestern cuts off service and prevents telegraph messages from getting in. Even though there's talk about a strike or armed resistance, and Presley's plea "to ignore our cry too long is to wake the Red Terror," the League collapses when Magnus' bribes are revealed (Ch. 2: 7). He later goes quite insane, and, in the final humiliation, is offered a low-paying clerk's job by the pervasive Behrman (Ch. 2: 9).

Many displaced ranch families are forced to move to San Francisco; the daughter of one (who eventually goes into prostitution) notices that "upon the street-railway cars, upon the ferryboats, on the locomotives and way-coaches of the local trains, she was reminded of her father's death, and of the giant power that had reduced her to her present straits, by the letters, P. and S. W. R. R." Monopoly, the "long arms of the monster," is everywhere (Ch. 2: 8).

Shelgrim, the railroad president, explains: "try to believe this - to begin with - that Railroads build themselves. Where there is a demand sooner or later there will be a supply… Do I build the Railroad? You are dealing with forces, young man, when you speak of Wheat and the Railroads, not with men… the Wheat will be carried to feed the people as inevitably as it will grow" (Ch. 2: 8). Presley accepts this explanation, leaves the Valley, and ships aboard one of Cedarquist's freighters with a full load of Behrman's wheat which had been bought by a group of city women for the Indian Famine Relief Committee (Ch. 2: 9). He figures that, in the big picture, it evens out since starving people will be fed ("Conclusion").

Ironically, Behrman is also on the steamer. While the wheat was being loaded from the grain elevator he bought at Port Costa, his leg got caught in a coil of rope (like Melville's Ahab) and he is smothered, unnoticed in the hold. The ship-filling machinery is on its own, "No human agency seemed to be back of the movement of the wheat" (Ch. 2: 9).

Edition used: New York: The Library of America, 1986.



Author: Willa Cather (1876-1947)

Title: "The Best Years"

Date: 1948 Written: 1945

Systems: Buckboard, automobile

Context: 1899 and twenty years later, Nebraska

The story starts with a lovely buckboard ride through rural Nebraska where Miss Knightly, a county school board official does the rounds of rural schools. Her old mare, Molly, takes a leisurely pace which is quite satisfactory, since it lets Knightly enjoy the countryside. "Miss Knightly was thinking, as Molly jogged along, that the barbed-wire fences, though ugly in themselves, had their advantages. They did not cut the country into patterns as did the rail fences and stone walls of her native New England. They were, broadly regarded, invisible - did not impose themselves upon the eye. She seemed to be driving through a fineless land." She arrives at the Wild Rose school (five horses tethered in front, a boy comes out to take care of her mule) to visit the one-room class (Ch. 1). The geography lesson, naming the borders of the states, resonates off the image of the fences rather nicely (Ch. 2).

Knightly offers to take the fifteen-year-old teacher, Lesley Ferguesson, home to her parents for the weekend. The fourteen-mile (three hour) trip takes them to MacAlpin which is signaled by the 80-foot tall "standpipe" (water tower). They have telephones and electricity, but still rely totally on horse-drawn vehicles; Lesley's father uses the buckboard between their house in town and the farm; he knows Knightly's mule's name. We get an inside view of the Ferguesson's household, ending with their bedtime at ten o'clock, "the sweetest morsel of the night. At that hour Number Seventeen, the westbound passenger, whistled in. The station and the engine house were perhaps an eighth of a mile down the hill, and from far away across the meadows the children could hear that whistle. Then came the heavy pants of the locomotive in the frosty air. Then a hissing - then silence: she was taking water" (Ch. 3).

The turning moment of the story is a blizzard. Knightly is in Lincoln at a professional convention. The Chicago passenger train is stuck in a deep cut for three days - the dining car has to feed the people throughout the storm. Knightly rather welcomes the delay since she can enjoy an extra week in the city, rather than rushing to MacAlpin for her county duties. She does get on the train ("it was two hours late, travel was still disorganized") but hears from the conductor, who knows her, first that the regular conductor had his leg broken in trying to dig the train out, and, second, that Lesley had died from pneumonia after the storm. The snow at the rural school had been overwhelming; Lesley, finally with the heroic help of a nearby farmer had gotten the students to a safe place even though the horses could not move owing to the depth of the snow. The irony is obviously of Knightly enjoying the effects of the bad weather while it paralyzes travel and causes death at the same time (Ch. 6).

Twenty years later, roughly 1920, Miss Knightly returns to MacAlpin by "the fast eastbound passenger." She is recognized by the station master, who asks, "'You like me to telephone for an otto [automobile] to take you up?'" [Cather's brackets]. In a sentimental visit she would like to go to the schools she had supervised up to fifteen years ago - she notes that with a car, she could get to nearly all of them in one day. She is, of course, welcomed by the Ferguessons, and leaves flowers at Lesley's grave. Lesley's mother notes that "I can still hear the trains whistle in. Sometimes, when I can't sleep, I lie and listen for them." The trains become more a symbol of the past than their previous role as a part of daily life (Ch. 7).

Edition used: Five Stories. New York: Vintage, 1956.


Previous chapter Title page Next chapter
Subject index Author index Place index