Early Passenger Train Travel

The passenger train came about between the early and mid 19th century as a faster alternative to covered wagons and steamboats. Prior to the existence of passenger trains, most people traveled long distances via covered wagon over land-based wagon trails, or by steamboat over rivers. These journeys could take months to complete, and the overland journeys were very difficult and even often ended in tragedy due to injuries or disease. Indian attacks were also not that uncommon. If you’ve played the game Oregon Trail, you’ll know how rough the journeys over wagon trails were.

The paddle wheel steamer is how many people traveled
over rivers until passenger trains became more robust in the
United States. (photo source: Wikipedia)
The covered wagon is how many people traveled long distances over land prior to the advent of the passenger train. (photo source: depositphotos.com)

While easier, safer, and faster than traveling by covered wagon on trails or traveling by steamboat on rivers, passenger trains did not start catching on until the late 19th century. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10th, 1869, revolutionized rail travel in the United States. This made east-west overland wagon trails like the Oregon Trail obsolete.

However, northbound and southbound trips still often had to be completed via wagon trail or river until the mid to late 19th century, as railroad routes in that direction were not robust until then. The first north-south rail route in the United States was built by the Illinois Central Railroad from Cairo, IL (at the very southern tip of the state) to Galena, IL (in the northwest corner of the state) in 1856. A branch from Centralia, IL to Chicago was built later. Through acquisitions and mergers in the late 19th century, the IC reached New Orleans, LA, creating the first north-south rail line in the US. Passenger service on the route was provided by the Panama Limited and the City of New Orleans trains. The latter train continues to operate today under Amtrak.

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