After 1869, when Leland Stanford drove the ceremonial Golden Spike connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines to create the first transcontinental railroad in America, passengers could travel from coast-to-coast by rail. The voyage took approximately one week, at speeds averaging 20 mph.
The week-long trip was incredibly fast for the time, but in 1876, the trip was accomplished--one time only--in just eighty-three hours.
Henry Jarrett & Henry Palmer are the duo responsible for coming up with this amazing event. One might suspect they were in the railroad business, but in fact, they managed a New York theatre company. Eager for a way to promote their troupe, they determined they'd travel to the west coast by rail in four days, where the actors would get off the train and perform Henry V in San Francisco.
It was an incredibly complicated, cooperative effort that required tremendous planning and expense. Naturally, the trip received a good deal of press in the months leading up to the departure--which Jarrett & Palmer must have enjoyed, since tickets to Henry V sold well, too. At last the big day came, and with much fanfare, the train pulled out of the station in Jersey City, New Jersey, on June 1, 1876.
To complete the journey in the four-day time frame, trains would have to move at high speeds, and necessary stops would have to be as short as possible. All the way to California, rail workers ensured as smooth a path as possible, clearing the way of debris and diverting other trains onto side tracks so the Lightning Express could zip by. At every scheduled stop, supplies, water, and coal were ready for quick loading, as were staff, including conductors, brakemen, firemen and engineers. Likewise, the engine was switched out five times to avoid mechanical issues.
The Lightning Express must have caused a great deal of inconvenience for the railroads and passengers on other trains, but if anyone minded, they seem to have been in the minority. Day and night, people lined the tracks to get a gander at the train, and several towns shot off fireworks when it passed. Reportedly, a man's funeral was interrupted by the coming of the train; everyone went to look at it and returned to the church to finish the service afterwards.
Businesses and agencies got in on the act, too. The New York Times shipped its newspaper to Chicago on the train, Wells Fargo put a safe in the baggage car, and the USPS created a postmark for mail that went on the train.
Being a passenger on the Lightning Express wasn't the most comfortable experience, however. Traveling at a high rate of speed wasn't as smooth then as it is on modern trains. The jarring and jolting made it difficult to sleep, walk, or cook, so most food was served cold. When passengers did manage to catch a few winks, they awoke to cinders on their faces.
To be a coast-to-coast trip, the passengers took the train as far as it would go, Oakland, California, and boarded a ferry to take them to San Francisco. A mob was waiting, even though the train was twelve hours early.
At last, the passengers arrived in San Francisco. Despite a few difficulties with equipment and weather, the Lightning Express completed the trip in just three days, eleven hours, and 39 minutes--an astounding achievement in technology.
The production of Henry V was a success, too, just as Jarrett & Palmer hoped, but the legacy of the express train known by their names is far more lasting as a mechanical achievement, national source of pride and celebration, and a stepping stone for more efficient travel in America.
For more, read: The Jarrett-Palmer Express of 1876, Coast to Coast in Eighty-Three Hours, by J. C. Ladenheim, Harvest Books, 2008.
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The Jarrett-Palmer Express inspired the train in my new novella, The Honeymoon Express, just released as part of The Rails to Love Collection by Barbour Publishing.
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BIO: Susanne Dietze is the author of nine new and upcoming historical romances. She has a special affection for trains because her father is a railroad enthusiast who pegged the engine on the book cover as being from New Zealand. You can learn more about her on her website at www.susannedietze.com.