Cross Country Trip Planning, 1899 Edition
May 14, 2019 9:30 AM   Subscribe

How do you get from Iowa to Washington in 1899?

According to an old story in the local paper, my great great grandfather left Hull, IA on December 26, 1899 and arrived in Bellingham, WA 5 days later on December 31. I assume he would have taken a train, but which route would it have been? What was cross country train travel like at that time, particularly in winter? I'm interested in any resources or accounts that would shed some insight in what this journey was like for him.
posted by bajema to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You might find some of the answers in Appleton’s Guide.
posted by plonkee at 10:06 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maps of the Union Pacific and The Northern Pacific here.

Google search: 1899 US train track map
posted by cda at 10:08 AM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just happened to re-watch the Ken Burns documentary Horatio’s Drive, about the first cross-country drive in an automobile in 1903. There’s quite a bit in there about what it was like to travel long-distance by train and wagon in the years immediately before this. (With really charming photos from the period, because Ken Burns.) The drivers mostly follow the train tracks when possible, and take a route from SF to NYC that includes a stretch from the PNW to the Midwest, so might overlap somewhat with the route you’re looking at in the other direction. I just wanted to mention it if you haven’t seen it as a fun supplement to your research.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:22 AM on May 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ooh, just found the Bellingham Railway Museum! They might be able to tell you what trains came there in 1899.
posted by mareli at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2019

The 1899 edition seems to be missing, but he might have started by planning his trip using a consolidated rail timetable like this one for late 1898. These let you coordinate trips that spanned various railroads. (Also they are pretty great; the ads alone are entertaining as hell.) It has a map of the entire country, and then you can drill down to various areas to determine what railroad serves them. Hull would be on the p.19 detail map, but is apparently too small to warrant notation (or at least I can't find it—it should be between Sheldon and Rock Valley in the upper-right of the page). But there is a rail line there, suggesting that he could have boarded a train right in his hometown, if he'd wanted to. It's rather unhelpfully marked "Chicago" (printed p.19, but page 11 in the PDF / Google Books version), which is a bit vague.

An aerial photo of Hull, IA shows that while it no longer has rail service today, it certainly used to, and there is what I suspect was formerly a passenger station in the middle of town. The dead giveaway is the street near the grain elevator—almost invariably built near train tracks in older farm towns—that runs slightly out of alignment with the rest of the street grid. You can actually follow the old right-of-way east for some distance; it's harder to follow where it would have gone to the west. My suspicion is that it ran to the town of Inwood, which also has a central street running diagonal to the rest of the roads, and just NW of it we can find existing but disused trackage. It goes into Canton, joining what seems to be still in-use track (and there's a very classic wye) and a branch runs more or less directly north to Sioux Falls.

This nice history of railroading in South Dakota, produced for the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, suggests that the line running south from Sioux Falls was the "Milwaukee Road", officially the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific. This lines up with the "Chicago" notation on the rail line running through Hull in the Railway Guide—so, mystery solved there.

Information on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul starts on p.465. Hull was served by the "Iowa and Dakota Division" (p.470) and the line did run through Rock Valley, Inwood, and then Canton. I admit to not totally understanding the nuances of the timetable, but I think he might have needed to change trains in Canton, because the line running to Chamberlain, SD is basically a dead-end (which may have connected to steamer service at the river, not that it would have helped your relative on his trip). I'm still working out what he would have needed to do from there; I think he'd probably have needed to get to St. Paul, if not Chicago.

Looking to his destination, in 1899 the only rail service to Bellingham would have been via the Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad (interestingly it was bought by the Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul in 1912), which connected to the Canadian Pacific. Its services are listed on p.567 of the guide. But, as today, there would have been many ferry services on Puget Sound and it looks to me like taking the Bellingham RR would have been a much more complex trip than taking a train to Seattle and then taking a steamer to Bellingham/Whatcom.

Seattle was served by several railroads, including the Great Northern and Northern Pacific (plus two regional roads). The Northern Pacific ran to St. Paul, so that would have been a decent option. But so did the Great Northern (p.524).

Actually, it actually looks like the Great Northern has a spur that runs up Puget Sound and might get closer to Bellingham (?), but without looking at the specific route timetables, I'm not entirely sure if it would have been more convenient.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:21 AM on May 14, 2019 [11 favorites]

So after looking over the (late 1898) timetables a bit more, I think I have a sensible route. Which is not to say it's what your relative actually did, because there are a lot of options, but I think it's the one that has the fewest transfers and is probably the fastest (less confident on that second part).

First, you wouldn't get on the train in Hull, because you don't really want to get on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St Paul (aka the "Milwaukee Road"). If you do that, you have to take one train a few stops from Hull to Canton, then change and get on another train for Sioux Falls, then change to a Great Northern train there. And then as now, that's obnoxious.

Instead, if you go less than a mile west from Hull, you get to the town of Perkins, IA, which was a stop on the Great Northern's Sioux City line. From there, you can get on a train (7:18am departure, ouch) that takes you directly to Minneapolis (arr. 5:05pm), where you have to stay overnight, because the Limited to Seattle only departs once a day. So you get to spend an evening and the better part of a day in Minneapolis, killing time. The next day you get on the Limited, Train No. 2, departing 2pm, and get comfortable. Real comfortable—or better yet buy a "Palace Sleeper", if you could afford it. Because if you leave Minneapolis at 2pm on a Monday, you get to Seattle on Thursday morning, if I'm reading the timetable correctly.

Except you wouldn't go all the way to Seattle, instead you'd get off at Everett Jcn. (arr. 5:25am) stand around for a few hours, and get on the 9:45am northbound train to New Whatcom, getting you in to what today is Bellingham (I think, per Wikipedia the towns merged in the early 20th c.) at 12:25pm. And from there it would be ground transportation or streetcars (or whatever they had in the area) to your final destination.

All in all, not a quick trip. If you left early on a Monday morning from Hull, and made it on that 7:18am departure from Perkins, you'd get to Whatcom/Bellingham midday on Friday, losing 4.5 days—plus or minus a night on the town in Minneapolis—in transit.

It's possible that by using some combination of other railroads to get to Minneapolis, the overnight stay there could be avoided... and maybe with enough local knowledge of the various timetables it's possible to somehow cut a corner off of the trip by meeting the GN Limited while it's on its way west across North Dakota via some other railroad... but I suspect if you had written to a Great Northern ticket agent and asked them "how do I get from Hull, IA to Bellingham, WA?" the route described is what they would have told you.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:56 PM on May 14, 2019 [14 favorites]

Kadin, that is amazing!
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 1:50 PM on May 14, 2019

Minor correction, if we're really gunning for historical accuracy: in 1899 the train would have been named the Great Northern Flyer, not The Limited; apparently GN changed it when they picked up a mail contract in 1899.

They then continued to change the name and the route periodically, eventually settling on Empire Builder in 1929. The modern Amtrak Empire Builder still runs on much same route, at least between St. Paul and Everett. Though it does the St Paul to Seattle trip in ~36 hours, instead of something like 65. And they have made some improvements in the legibility of the timetables, thank god.

And thanks! I like this sort of thing.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:00 PM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]


Iowa has .KML files and PDF maps of historical rail lines available on it's DOT website.

IIRC, Minnesota does as well.

Just in case you need to do more sleuthing.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 3:00 PM on May 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

@Kadin2048, that is some incredible work. Much more detail than I was expecting to find. FWIW, the final leg of his journey was a 4 hours stagecoach ride from Bellingham to Lynden arriving at 5pm, which incidentally would fit with a 12:25pm arrival in Bellingham.
posted by bajema at 8:43 AM on May 15, 2019

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