Between 1860 and 1890, railroad mileage multiplied from 30,000 to 166,000. Within the first ten years after the Golden Spike ceremony joined the first transcontinental railway, three additional railroads spanned the land, and short lines had been united into systems linking innumerable tiny towns and villages to each other and to the great metropolitan cities. Editorials and travel features extolling the advantage of train excursions appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country. Helen Hunt, a reporter for Scribner’s Monthly Magazine and later Century Magazine, penned a number of stories about traveling across the frontier.
The well-known, highly acclaimed poet and writer was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1831. Helen was the daughter of Nathan Fiske, a professor of languages and religion at Amherst College. She was a strong-willed individual who cherished reading from an early age. She was the second oldest child and experienced a great deal of tragedy growing up. Her two brothers died at infancy, and her mother, Deborah, struggled with tuberculosis. Shortly after her mother’s death, Helen’s father became a missionary into the Holy Land and she and her sister were sent to live with relatives. In his absence, Nathan Fiske made arrangements for his daughters to attend select boarding schools. He died unexpectedly in 1847.
In 1852, Helen married Captain Edward B. Hunt, a military engineer. In the second year of her marriage, she lost a child. Her husband was killed in 1863 by the explosion of a submarine gun of his own invention. Less than two years later, her second child, a son, died.
Out of her loss and sorrow blossomed a great desire for writing. Helen’s first poem, entitled “Lifted Over” and about her son’s passing, was published in 1865. Her successful literary career began in 1866 when she moved to Newport, Massachusetts. In addition to poems, Helen wrote essays, children’s stories, and travel pieces for magazines. Her first collection of writing published in book form was Bits of Travel at Home, written after she spent from 1868 to 1870 in Europe.
In the spring of 1872, Helen and her friend, fellow author Susan Coolidge, traveled to California on the Union Pacific Railroad. Both women were to write helpful guides for ladies embarking on summer trips from the East Coast to the West Coast. The pair boarded the train in Chicago in mid-May. Helen’s initial impressions of the vehicle that would be transporting them to points beyond the Mississippi were less than favorable.
“Three nights and four days in the cars!” Helen recalled in her book Bits of Travel at Home. “These words haunted us and hindered our rest. What should we eat and drink, and wherewithal should we be clothed? No Scripture was strong enough to calm our anxious thoughts; no friend’s experience of comfort and ease on the journey sounded credible enough to disarm our fears. ‘Dust is dust,’ said we, ‘and railroad is railroad. All restaurant cooking in America is intolerable. We shall be wretched; nevertheless, we go.’
“Our drawing-room? Yes, our drawing-room; and this is the plan of it: A small, square room, occupying the whole width of the car, excepting a narrow passageway on one side; four windows, two opening on this passageway and two opening out of doors; two doors, one opening into the car and one opening into a tiny closet, which held a washstand basin. This closet had another door, opening into another drawing-room beyond. No one but the occupants of the two drawing-rooms could have access to the bath-closet. On one side of our drawing-room a long sofa; on the other two large arm-chairs, which could be wheeled so as to face the sofa. Two shining spittoons and plenty of looking-glass, hooks high up on the sides, and silver-plated rods for curtains overhead, completed the list of furniture. Room on the floor for bags and bundles and baskets; room, too, for a third chair, and a third chair we had for a part of the way, an easy-chair, with a sloping back, which belonged to another of these luxurious Pullman cars.”
As the trip progressed, Helen lost herself in the scenery and the enormity of the frontier. “By hundreds of miles the rich prairie lands had unrolled themselves, smiled, and fled. On the very edges of the crumbling, dusty banks of our track stood pink, and blue, and yellow flowers, undisturbed. The homesteads in the distances looked like shining green fortresses, for nearly every house has a tree wall on two sides of it. The trees looked like poplars, but we could not be sure. Often we saw only the solid green square, the house being entirely concealed from view. As we drew near the Mississippi River, soft, low hills came into view on each side; tangled skeins of little rivers, shaded by tall trees, wound and unwound themselves side by side with us. A big bridge lay ready, on which we crossed; everybody standing on the platform of the cars, at their own risk, according to the explicit prohibition of the railroad company.
“‘Make your beds now, ladies?’ said the chamberman…
“‘Yes,’ we replied. ‘That is just what we most desire to see.’
“Presto! The seats of the arm-chairs pull out, and meet in the middle. The backs of the arm-chairs pull down, and lie flat on level with the seats. The sofa pulls out and opens into double width. The roof of our drawing-room opens and lets down, and makes two more bedsteads, which we, luckily, do not want; but from under their eaves come mattresses, pillows, sheets, pillow-cases, and curtains. The beds are made; the roof shut up again; the curtains hung across the glass part of the doors; the curtains drawn across the passage-way windows; the doors shut and locked; and we undress as entirely and safely as if we were in the best bedroom of a house not made with wheels. Because we are so comfortable, we lie awake a little, but not long; and that is the whole story of nights on the cars when the cars are built by Pullman and the sleeping is done in drawing-rooms.
“Next morning, more prairie – unfenced now, undivided, unmeasured, unmarked, save by the different tints of different growths of grass or grain; great droves of cattle grazing here and there; acres of willow saplings, pale yellowish green; and solitary trees, which look like hermits in a wilderness. These, and now then a shapeless village, which looks even lonelier than the empty loneliness by which it is surrounded – these are all for hours and hours. We think, ‘now we are getting out into the great spaces. This is what the word “West” has sounded like.’
Helen was transfixed by the vast open space that stretched out on either side of the Platte River in Nebraska. She contemplated the brave men and women who had made the journey across the plains by wagon train and imagined traveling past the graves of emigrants who perished along the way. She marveled at the grand sunsets, the wildlife that dotted the route, and the hamlets where the train stopped.
“Early one morning, we saw antelopes,” Helen later wrote. “They were a great way off, and, while they stood still, might as well have been big goats or small cows; but, when they were good enough to bound, no eye could mistake them. The sight of these consoled us for having passed through the buffalo country in the night. It also explained the nature of the steaks we had been eating. How should steaks be tender cut out of that acrobatic sort of muscle? We passed also the outposts of Prairie Dog Town. The owls and rattlesnakes were ‘not receiving,’ apparently; but the droll, little squirrel-like puppies met us most cordially. The mixture of defiance and terror, of attack and retreat, in their behavior was as funny as it always is in small dogs, who bark and run, in other places. But the number and manner of shelters made it unspeakably droll here. I am not sure that I actually saw the whole of any one prairie dog at a time. What I chiefly saw were ends of tails going into holes, and tips of noses sticking out to bark.
“We were invited to dine at Cheyenne. ‘Cheyenne City,’ it is called. Most of the buildings which we saw were one-story wooden ones, small, square, with no appearance of roofs, only a square, sharp-cornered front, like a section of board fence. These all faced the railroad station, were painted with conspicuous signs, such as ‘Billiard Saloon,’ ‘Sample Room,’ ‘Meals for Fifty Cents;’ and, in the doors of most of them, as the train arrived, there stood a woman or a boy, ringing a shrill bell furiously. It is curious, at these stations, to see how instantly the crowd of passengers assorts itself, and divides into grades, of people seeking for the best; people seeking for the cheapest; and other people, most economical of all, who buy only hot drinks, having brought a grocery store and a restaurant along with them in a basket-tower.”
From Cheyenne, Helen and her friend Susan proceeded to Sherman, Wyoming, while riding in the engine. The train required two engines to get over the steep mountain pass. “The throbbing puffs, almost under our feet, sounded like the quick-drawn, panting breaths of some giant creature,” Helen recalled about the venture. “Once in every three or four minutes, the great breastplate door opened; and we looked into its heart of fire, and fed it with fuel. Once in every three or four minutes, one of the keepers crept along on its sides, out to its very mount, and poured oil into every joint: he strode its neck, and anointed every valve. His hand seemed to pat it lovingly, as he came back, holding on by the shining rods and knobs and handles. I almost forgot to look at the stretches of snow, the forests of pines, the plateaus of mountain-tops, on either hand, so absorbed was I in the sense of supernatural motion.”
On the morning of the fourth day of Helen’s journey, the Union Pacific train arrived in Utah. Both Helen and Susan were moved by the wondrous surroundings. “We looked out on a desert of sage-brush and sand; but the desert had infinite beauties of shape, and the sage had pathos of color,” Helen noted in her memoir. “Why has the sage-brush been so despised, so held up to the scorn of men? It is simply a miniature olive tree. In tint, in shape, the resemblance is wonderful. Travelers never tire of recording the sad and subtle beauty of Mediterranean slopes, gray with the soft, thick, rounded tops of olive orchards. The stretches of these sage-grown plains have the same tints, the same roundings and blendings of soft, thick foliage; the low sand-hills have endless variety of outline, and all strangely suggestive. There are fortresses, palisades, roof slopes with dormer windows, hollows like cradles, and here and there vivid green oases. In these oases cattle graze…. Then comes a tract of stony country, where the rocks seem also as significant and suggestive as the sand-hills – castles, and pillars, and altars, and spires: it is impossible to believe that human hands have not wrought them.”
Helen and Susan enjoyed watching the amazing sights from the observation car. The experience left Helen convinced that no train should be without such an open car. She was particularly appreciative of the car when the vehicle reached Utah’s Echo Canyon.
“Rocks of red and pale yellow color were piled and strewn on either hand in a confusion so wild that it was majestic,” Helen later recalled, “many of them looked like gateways and walls and battlements of fortifications; many of them seemed poised on points, just ready to fall; others rose massive and solid, from terraces which stretched away beyond our sight. The railroad track is laid (is hung would seem a truer phrase) high up on the right-hand wall of the [canyon], that is, on the wall of stone. The old emigrant road ran at the base of the opposite wall (the wall of grassy slopes), close on the edge of the river. Just after we entered the [canyon], as we looked down to the river, we saw an emigrant party in sore trouble on that road. The river was high and overflowed the road; the crumbling, gravelly precipice rose up hundreds of feet sheer from the water; the cattle which the poor man was driving were trying to run up the precipice, but all to no purpose; the wife and children sat on logs by the wagon, apathetically waiting, nothing to be done but to wait there in that wild and desolate spot till the river chose to give them right of way again.
“They were so many hundred feet below us that the cattle seemed calves and the people tiny puppets, as we looked over the narrow rim of earth and stone which upheld us in the air. But I envied them. They would see the [canyon], know it. To us it would be only a swift and vanishing dream. Even while we are whirling through, it grows unreal. Flowers of blue, yellow, purple are flying past, seemingly almost under our wheels. We look over them down into broader spaces, where there are homesteads and green meadows. Then the [canyon] walls close in again, and, looking down we see only a silver thread of river; looking up, we see only a blue belt of sky.”
From Echo Canyon, the friends traveled to Weber Canyon.
“The [glorious canyon] opens suddenly into a broad, beautiful meadow, in which the river seems to rest rather than to run,” Helen explained. “A line of low houses, a Mormon settlement, marks the banks; fields of grain and grass glitter in the early green; great patches of blue lupine on every hand look blue as blue water at a distance, the flowers are set so thick. Only a few moments of this, however, and we are again in a rocky gorge, where there is barely room for the river, and no room for us, except on a bridge. This, too, is named for that same popular person, ‘Devil’s Gate.’ The river foams and roars under our feet as we go through. Now comes another open plain, wide, sunny, walled about by snow mountains, and holding a town. This is Ogden, and the shining water which lies in sight to the left is the Great Salt Lake!”
The Union Pacific Railroad ends in Ogden, Utah, and the Central Pacific Railroad begins. A change in railroads also meant a change in railroad cars. Helen’s luggage was transferred, but she didn’t immediately proceed with the trip. Helen and her friend’s accommodations would no longer be on a Pullman drawing-room car but on a Silver Palace Car. “We are told that there are good reasons why no mortal can engage a section of a sleeping-car to be ready for him at Ogden on any particular day,” Helen later wrote. “Through passengers must be accommodated first. Through passengers, no doubt, see the justice of this. Way passengers cannot be expected to. But we do most emphatically realize the bearing of it when we arrive at Ogden from Salt Lake City at four o’clock in the afternoon, and find anxious men standing patiently in line, forty deep, before the ticket-office, biding their chance of having to sit up for the two nights which must be spent on the road between Ogden and San Francisco. It was a desperate hour for that ticket agent; and the crowd was a study for an artist. Most to be pitied of all were the married men, whose nervous wives kept plucking them by the coattails and drawing them out of the line once in five minutes, to propose utterly impracticable devices for circumventing or hurrying the ticket-agent.
“I do not know how many, if any, of the forty unfortunates rode all the way bedless to San Francisco; for our first anxiety as to whether we should each get a section was soon merged in our second, which was almost as great what we should do with ourselves in it.”
Helen had a fine appreciation for the landscape she witnessed during her cross-country tour, but at times, found the mode of transportation lacking.
“A latent sense of justice restrains me from attempting to describe a section,” Helen noted. “It is impossible to be just to a person or a thing disliked. I dislike the sleeping-car sections more than I ever have disliked, ever shall dislike, or ever can dislike anything in the world. Therefore, I will not describe one. I will speak only of the process of going to bed and getting up in it.
“Fancy a mattress laid on the bottom shelf in your cupboard, and the cupboard door shut. You have previously made choice among your possessions which ones you will have put underneath your shelf, where you cannot get at them, and which ones you must have, and will therefore keep all night on the foot of your bed. Accurate memory and judicious selection, under such circumstances, are impossible. No sooner is the cupboard door shut than you remember that several indispensable articles are under the shelf. But the door is locked, and you can’t get out. By which I mean that the porter has put up the curtain in front of your section, and of the opposite section, and you have partially undressed, and can’t step out into the narrow aisle without encountering the English gentleman, who is going by to heat water on the stove at the end of the car; and, even if you didn’t encounter him, you can’t get at the things which have been stowed away under your shelf, unless you lie down at full length on the floor to reach them; and you can’t lie down at full length on the floor, because most of the floor is under your opposite neighbor’s shelf. So I said the door was locked simply to express the hopelessness of the situation.
“Then you sit cross-legged on your bed; because, of course, you can’t sit on the edge of the shelf after the cupboard door is shut – that is, the curtain is put up so close to the edge of your bed that, if you do sit there in the natural human manner, your knees and feet will be in the way of the English gentleman when he passes. Sitting cross-legged on your bed, you take off a few of your clothes, if you have courage; and then you cast about to think what you shall do with them. It is quite light in the cupboard, for there is a little kerosene lamp in a tiny glass-doored niche in the wall; and it gives light enough to show you that there isn’t a hook or an edge of anything on which a single article can be hung.”
The first night Helen and her friend Susan traveled on the Central Pacific Railroad, they passed over the Great American Desert. All they could see upon waking the next morning was sand and sagebrush.
“The tints are exquisite,” Helen remembered. “We shall not be weary of it if it lasts all day. And it did last all day. All day long tints of gray and brown; sometimes rocky ravines, with low, dark growths on their sides; sometimes valleys, which the guide book said were fertile, but which to us looked just as gray and brown as the plains.”
The next stop for Helen and her companion was Humboldt Station in northern California. The pair had been looking forward to reaching the station because it meant supper, but, when they stopped, thoughts of supper fled.
“Four thousand feet above the sea, among alkali sands and stony volcanic beds, there stood a brilliant green oasis,” Helen recalled. “Clover fields, young trees, and vegetable gardens surrounded the little house. In front was a fountain, which sparkled in the sun. Around it was a broad rim of grass and white clover. An iron railing enclosed it. It was a pathetic sight to see rough men, even men from the emigrant car, stretching their hands through the railing to pick a blade of grass or a clover blossom.
“One great, burly fellow, lifted up his little girl, and, swinging her over the iron spikes, set her down in the grass saying, ‘There! I’d like to see ye steppin’ on green grass once more.’ It was a test of loyalty to green fields and there were no traitors. We had not dreamed that we had grown so hungry for sight of true summer. Just as the train was about to start, I remembered a gentle-faced woman in our car who had not come out. I reached into the grassy rim, without looking, and picked a clover leaf to carry her as a token. I gave it to her, without having looked closely at it. ‘And a four leafed clover, too!’ she exclaimed, as she took it.”
Although Helen found the Salt Lake desert beautiful, she was excited about the change of scenery California had to offer. “We awoke in the Sierras,” Helen noted. “As far as we could see on either hand rose snowy tops of mountains. We were on them, below them, among them, all at once. Some were covered with pines and firs; some were glistening and bare. We looked down into ravines and gorges which were so deep they were black. Tops of firs, which we knew must be hundreds of feet high, seemed to make only a solid mossy bed below us. The sun shone brilliantly on the crests and upper slopes; now and then a sharp gleam of light showed a lake or a river far down among the dark and icy walls. It seemed almost as if these lights came from our train, as if we bore a gigantic lantern, which flashed its light in and out as we went winding and leaping from depth to depth, from peak to peak.
“I think nothing could happen in life which could make any human being who had looked out on this scene forget it. Presently we entered the snow-sheds. These were dreary, but could not wholly interrupt the grandeur. Fancy miles upon miles of covered bridge, with black and grimy snow-drifts, or else still blacker and grimier gutters of water, on each side the track (for the snow-sheds keep out only part of the snow); through the seams between the boards, sometimes through open spaces where boards have fallen, whirling glimpses of snow-drifts outside, of tops of trees, of tops of mountains, of bottoms of canyons – this is snow-shed traveling. And there are thirty-nine miles of it on the Central Pacific Railroad. It was like being borne along half blindfolded through the upper air. I felt as if I knew how the Sierras might look to eagles flying over in haste, with their eyes fixed on the sun.
“‘Breakfast in a snow-shed this morning, ladies,’ said Frank, our chambermaid. True; the snow-shed branched off like a mining gallery, widened, and took in the front of a little house, whose door was set wide open, and whose breakfast-bell was ringing as we jumped out of the cars. We walked up to the dining room over icy rock. Through openings at each side, where the shed joined the house, we looked out upon fields of snow, and firs, and rocky peaks; but the sun shone like the sun of June and we had not a sensation of chill.”
After breakfast in a snowshed, Helen and Susan focused all their attention on the view as the train descended from its high position in the Sierras. “In a few miles we had gone down three thousand feet, the brakes all the while holding us back, lest we should roll too fast,” Helen noted about the ride out of the mountains. “Flowers sprang up into sight, as if conjured by a miracle out of the ice; green spaces, too, and little branches, with trees and shrubs around them. The great American Canyon seemed to open its arms, finding us bold enough to enter. Its walls are two thousand feet high, and are rifted by other canyons running down, each with its tiny silver thread of water, till they are lost in the abysses of fir-trees below.
“The mining villages looked gay as gardens. Every shanty had vines and shrubs and flowers about it. On all the hillsides were long, narrow wooden troughs, full of running water, like miniature canals, but swift, like brooks. One fancied that the water had a golden gleam in it, left from the precious gold it had washed. Still down, down, out of the snow into bloom, out of winter into spring, so suddenly that the winter and the spring seemed equally unreal, and we half looked for summer’s grain and autumn’s vintage, station by station. Nothing could have seemed too soon, too startling. We doubled Cape Horn, in the sunny weather, as gaily as if we had been on a light-boat’s deck; but we were sitting, standing, clinging on the steps and platforms of a heavy railroad train, whose track bent at a sharp angle around a rocky wall which rose up hundreds of feet straight in the air, and reached down hundreds of feet into the green valley beneath.”
It was noon in late June when Helen Hunt and Susan Coolidge reached Colfax, California.
“According to all calendars, there had been months between our breakfast and our dinner,” Helen recalled. “Men and boys ran up and down in the cars, offering us baskets of ripe strawberries and huge bunches of red, white, and pink roses. Gay placards advertising circuses and concerts, were on the walls and fences of Colfax. Yellow stages stood ready to carry people over smooth, red roads, which were to be seen winding off in many ways. ‘Grass Valley,’ ‘You Bet,’ and ‘Little York’ were three of the names.”
Executives with the Union and Central Pacific Railroads hoped articles written by Helen’s overland trip would entice women to come West via the rails which had made regular tourism to California possible. They desired the same outcome from the essay written by Helen’s traveling companion Susan Coolidge. Susan’s report entitled “A Few Hints on the California Journey” appeared in the May 1873 edition of Scribner’s Monthly Magazine.
A year after Helen’s article about her railroad journey appeared in Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, the writer moved from the Baltimore area to Colorado. She was suffering with a bronchial condition, and doctors believed she could find relief in the high elevation. Helen was also struggling with depression. She’d never been able to recover from the death of her husband and children. The hope was that Helen could have her physical and emotional health restored in the growing community of Colorado Springs.
She moved into the Colorado Springs Hotel. Her fellow borders were pleasant, particularly a Pennsylvania Quaker by the name of William Sharpless Jackson. William was a banker and owner of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Together they took long drives into the mountains. Daily, the excursions grew longer. They traveled to Fairplay, Central City, and Denver.
On October 22, 1875, Helen Hunt married William Jackson in a Quaker ceremony in New Hampshire. The couple traveled a great deal on the Denver Rio Grande Railroad. Helen continually submitted articles to Eastern magazines about her exploration of Colorado while on the train.