|A Courier & Ives print of the Lighting Express, right, on an early leg of the Transcontinental.|
If you were paying attention at all in school, and I’m sure you all were, you know that when the Golden Spike was driven to symbolically link the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Rail Roads on May 10, 1869 that the Transcontinental Railroad linked the East and West Coasts in one shimmering steel ribbon. Close, but not quite. Most folks thought New York City and San Francisco were the two termini. But there was no railroad bridge yet from Manhattan across the East River to New Jersey. In California the Central Pacific still ended in Sacramento and travelers those first months had to proceed to the Bay Area by river boat or stage coach. In November the CP’s subsidiaries the Western Pacific the San Francisco Bay Railroads completed the final leg of the route, connecting the state capital to Oakland. But to get to fabled San Francisco travelers had to board a ferry to cross the Bay.
|When the Central Pacific RR's Leland Stanford drove the final Golden Spike to complete the link with the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869 it did not actually complete a genuine uninterrupted coast-to-coast transcontinental connection.|
In between coasts, the Union Pacific started west from Omaha, Nebraska but there was no bridge over the Missouri River to Council Bluff, Iowa to connect to the Chicago and Northwestern line running east. Fortunately, thanks to a shrew railroad lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in a case representing the Illinois Central, railroads had won the right to span the Mississippi River even at the hazard of river boat operations so that great obstacle could be crossed.
But there was a snarl in Chicago where all of the principle railroads in the eastern half of the country had terminals but not direct connections. Passengers from the east had to get off a train at one station and go several blocks to pick up another heading west—and the railroads pointedly did not even synchronize their arrivals and departures to make that smooth or convenient. All freight had to similarly be switched from one line to another. East of Chicago passengers had to switch railroads two more times before glimpsing Manhattan from the Jersey side.
By 1876 some of those problems had been overcome. A bridge had finally been built over the Missouri and there was some schedule cooperation in Chicago although trains still needed to be changed. The trip from almost coast to almost coast still took about 7 days, but that was a vast improvement over months overland by wagon or stage coach or by steam packet around the Horn. Theoretically, however, it should have been possible to shave days off that time.
The idea of a dash from coast to coast for the express purpose of setting a record was a natural. One might suspect that it was part of the grand hoopla that year around the National Centennial and the great Exposition in Philadelphia. Or that it was promoted by the Federal Government to highlight fast postal service and emphasize national unity in the post-Civil War Era. Or that the railroads themselves thought up the stunt to promote their service. The eventual trip accomplished all those things, but none of them were the reason it was actually done.
|The coast-to-coast dash promoted Lawrence Barrett in Shakespeare's Henry V.|
It was just a good old fashion theatrical press agent gimmick. A New York impresario and flack named Henry Jarrett managed the Broadway Booth Theater where Lawrence Barrett and company were just about to finish up a successful run in Shakespeare’s Henry V. They had been booked into a top San Francisco theater following the New York run. Barrett was a popular actor but not on the world famous level of Edwin Booth in whose honor the New York house had been named and on the far away West Coast he was something of an unknown. Since he had to get star, cast, sets, costumes all the way across the country anyway, Jarrett hit on the idea of chartering a private train to deliver the company in record breaking time. He knew that the public would eat up the story.
Arranging for a private train was no difficulty. It was done all of the time by the wealthy. The trick would be getting all five railroads over which the train would have to roll to clear their tracks for a through express which would force any train ahead of them passenger or freight onto a siding until the express high balled through. Each of the roads would have to carefully pre-position fuel and water stops and have relief train crews at the ready. They would also have to undertake unusual coordination with connecting lines to insure the smooth transfer of the train to each new line’s engine.
Jarret was a smooth talker and got each of the railroads—the Pennsylvania; the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago, the Chicago & North Western, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific—to buy into the plan, and at an exceptionally low price of not terribly much more than First Class accommodations of everyone on board. He began to hype the trip with stories carefully planted in all of the leading New York dailies and national newspapers by greasing the palms of compliant reporters and editors when necessary. The telegraph spread the story across the country and even to Europe. Jarrett emphasized fact that the play was going to close less than 24 hours before cast, sets and costumes raced west to open in San Francisco only a few days later. This assured that every single Broadway performance was sold out right up to closing night. And tickets out west were already selling like hot cakes.
By the time the train was ready to leave reporters from the Times of London and James Gordon Bennett, Jr.’s New York Herald were on board to cover the trip from beginning to end. Along the route other reporters would get on for a while, get their interviews with the star and other members of the cast, and hop off to file breathless stories.
After crossing the Hudson by ferry early on June 1, 1876 passenger boarded the train which pulled out of the Pennsylvania RR’s Jersey City Station shortly after their arrival. It would travel 24 hours a day with only the briefest stops for fuel, water, to exchange crews, or attach new engines.
The train provided luxury accommodations. The star and leading actors, producer, and director rode in the luxury of the Pullman Palace Hotel Car, the Marlborough and dined on fine cuisine said to rival Delmonico’s famous New York eatery in a beautifully appointed dining car The crew, reporters, and the personal servants of the cast, and various hangers on traveled in a First Class Pullman Sleeping car. Each railroad along the route assigned their fastest and most modern locomotives and best, most experienced engineers to the train.
|Members of the transcontinental party including cast members of Henry V and reporters. Star Lawrence Barrett is third from left and press agent/organizer Henry Jarrett.is third from right.|
As it sped westward the train picked up two distinct nicknames. Some of the press picked up an early railroad telegrapher’s alert bulletin to the line ahead, “The Lightning Express is on the way.” Jarrett was thrilled with the moniker and adopted it for his own promotional uses. Meanwhile the Post Office saw the opportunity to promote its fast rail service. It loaded all of the mail due for shipment to the Orient from San Francisco and issued a special postmark for the “Jarrett & Palmer Fast Trans-Continental Express.” Some contemporary accounts and much of the historical writing done about the trip uses the name the Transcontinental Express.
Others tried to hitch their stars to the fame of the train. The New York Times was not yet the newspaper of record, but it was a rising competitor with the then dominant Herald for leadership among respectable broadsheets. The paper made sure that bundles of the early edition were rushed to the ferry to accompany the cast so that they could be placed in the baggage car destined for Chicago. The train rolled into the Windy City very same day it was published in New York beating the Herald by half a day. Later the Times would make special arrangements with the railroads to near duplicate this feat on a basis helping establish it as a major national paper.
The trip was not without its hitches. Even the most modern locomotives of the day were not designed for sustained speeds above 60 miles per hour. All four of the eastern lines scheduled at least one change of engine to prevent failure. And not every transfer of engines and crews worked perfectly smoothly. But by the time the express crossed the Missouri it was well ahead of time. And all along the way whole towns turned out when alerted that the train was coming by telegraph just to watch it flash by.
|A commemorative silver box engraved for passengers with tickets for each leg of the transcontinental dash.|
The great challenge was the final Central Pacific’s final 875 mile leg from Ogden, Utah to Oakland which encompassed not only the most miles but crossed the burning Salt Flats and deserts of Utah and Nevada and then had to climb and pierce the mighty Sierra Nevadas in California. The CP elected to use just one engine under the control of a single chief engineer for the entire trip. The engine was the modern #149, the Black Fox, a McQueen Locomotive Works 4-4-0 unit. The engineer was veteran Henry S. (Hank) Small. His hand was on the throttle most of the way with short spells of relief by other engineers.
There were risks. In the vast expanses of the West there were often hundreds of miles between towns and maintenance rail yards, any mechanical failure could doom the enterprise. And much of the way was single track mainline making it impossible to switch in case the track was damaged. That is exactly what happened in Utah where a flash flood washed away a section of track. Crews of Chinese laborers and mostly Irish gandydancers worked feverishly to complete a temporary bypass before the express came through. They just made it. Instead of stopping and waiting for construction, the train only had to temporarily slow down to pass.
Further west smoke alerted the crew to a tinderbox fire on an axle. Rather than stop for repairs a trainman leaned far out with one foot on the car’s foot bar and one hand on a ladder rung, opened the axle access hatch with his other hand, stuffed the reservoir box with oil soaked cotton, and added more oil from a can to lubricate the overheated axle. The train barely slowed down as he hung there by one hand. The axle cooled and the express rolled on.
As they approached the Sierras, the brakes on the Pullman Palace Car failed. Since the car could not be replaced, two empty baggage cars were attached behind it on the train to provide extra braking as the train made the steep descent into California from the mountains. In those days each car had hand operated brakes manned by brakemen standing on ladders at the top rear of each car.
|The Lightning Express was greeted with huge crowds when it rolled into Oakland. Photo from a popular series of parlor stereoscopic cards of the trip.|
Despite these misadventures the train rolled into Oakland on June 4, 1876 in a record shattering 3 days, 11 hours and 39 minutes. That was a full 12 hours before its projected arrival, setting off a scramble to rearrange the planned welcoming ceremonies. None the less, huge crowds and every available dignitary were on hand to greet the train and escort the passengers to a waiting ferry to San Francisco where another crowd awaited.
Jarrett, Barrett, and the company were feted at a grand banquet in the city. Engineer Small was hailed as a hero and Jarrett arranged for a gold medal to be struck for him. The publicity stunt was a huge success. Henry V had a long run to nothing but packed houses and star Barrett became a household name.
The country was still buzzing about the trip for the next three weeks until word of Custer’s Last Stand pushed it from the news.
To accomplish the trip the train often had to speed along over 60 MPH. Taking into account stops it averaged 41 MPH over the whole length of the trip. At the time 40 MPH was top speed on most trains and daily averages were about 20 MPH.
|Today Amtrak coast-to-coast service claims to beat the Lighting Express time by more than three hours but admits it seldom makes the run on schedule.|
For comparison a comparable automobile trip today over Interstate Highway with drivers constantly relieving one another can be driven almost exactly 2 days. Current Amtrak passenger service over roughly the same route is scheduled for 3 days, 9 hours and 15 minutes, only 2 hours faster than the Lightning Express. Of course even Amtrak will admit that it seldom meets that schedule.