The coming of the railroads during the early 19th century is credited by most historians with facilitating the Industrial Revolution and with opening up the far reaches of this country. At the time, however, not everyone was enthusiastic about the new mode of travel. The following account was written in his diary by Samuel Breck (1771-1862), a wealthy Philadelphian.
July 22, 1835 – This morning at nine o’clock I took passage in a railroad car from Boston for Providence. Five or six cars were attached to the loco and uglier boxes I do not wish to travel in. The carriages were made to stow away some thirty human beings, who sit cheek by jowl as best they can. Two fellows, not much in the habit of making their toilet, squeezed me into a corner, while the hot sun drew from them a villainous compound of smells made up of salt fish, tar and molasses. By and by twelve bouncing factory girls, who were on a pleasure party to Newport, boarded. “Make room for the ladies!” bawled the superintendent. “Come gentlemen, jump up on top; plenty of room there.” Some of the “gentlemen” were afraid of a low bridge knocking them off, while others had other excuses. For my part, I told him that since I had been in the militia I had lost my gallantry and didn’t move. All twelve finally were, however, settled and made themselves at home, sucking lemons and chattering away.
The rich and poor, the educated and ignorant, the polite and vulgar, all herd together in this modern improvement in travelling, and a democratic familiarity tends to level all social distinctions. Master and servant sleep head to toe, feed at the same table, sit in each other’s laps, as it were, in the cars; and all this for the sake of doing very uncomfortably in two days what could be done delightfully in eight or ten. Instead of this toilsome fashion of hurrying, hurrying, how much better to start on a journey with our own horses, and moving slowly, surely and profitably through the country, enjoying its beauty and stopping at good inns.
Steam, so useful in many respects, interferes with the comfort of travelling, destroys every distinction in society, and overturns the once rational, gentlemanly and safe mode of travel.
And talk of ladies in a railway car! There are none. I never feel like a gentleman there, nor can I see a semblance of gentility in anyone who makes up part of the travelling mob. When I see women who in their drawing rooms I respect and treat with every suitable deference – when I see them elbowing their way through a crowd of dirty emigrants or low-bred homespun fellows in breeches in our country, in order to reach a table spread for a hundred or more, I lose sight of their pretensions to gentility and view them as belonging to the plebian herd. To restore herself to her caste, let a lady move in select company at five miles an hour and take her meals in comfort at a good inn, where she may dine decently.
This share certificate is for the Boston and Providence Railroad on which Samuel Breck probably rode in the summer of 1835. [Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]
Sam Breck was undoubtedly a snob, and apparently much taken with his own exalted position in the social hierarchy of the day.
He elaborates on his distaste for rail travel in a later diary entry dated Dec. 31, 1839.
The modern fashion in all things is “to go ahead,” push on, keep moving, and the faster the better – never mind comfort or security or pleasure. Dash away and annihilate space by springing at a single jump, as it were, from town to town.
“How do you mean to travel?” asks someone. “By railroad to be sure, which is the only way now – and if one could stop when one wanted, and weren’t locked up in a box with fifty or sixty tobacco chewers; and ashes from the engine did not burn holes in one’s clothes; and the springs and hinges didn’t make such a racket; and the smell of the smoke, of the oil and of the chimney did not poison one; and if one could see the country, and were not in danger of being blown sky high or knocked off the rails – it would be the perfect way of travelling.” After all, the old-fashioned way of five or six miles an hour, with one’s own horses and carriage, with liberty to dine decently at in a good inn and be master of one’s movements, with the delight of seeing the country and getting along rationally, is the mode to which I cling, and which will be adopted again by future generations.
Ah, if Mr. Breck could only have foreseen the present century, when several hundred people are crammed into a narrow aluminum cylinder and fed a handful of peanuts, while they travel more than 500mph while flying 35,000 feet above the earth’s surface, all so they can breakfast in New York City and dine in San Francisco that evening.
“What’s this here world coming to?”
– Sam Moore