Train Travel in the 1800s Was Hazardous

Travel of any kind in the 1800s and before was very difficult—especially if you had young children along. I can’t even imagine trying to corral a child and get where I needed to go. It would’ve taken a lot of doing.

Going by train was by far preferable to stagecoach or horseback, but it definitely had its drawbacks.

Like smoke coming in the windows and ruining your clothes during the summer months.

Freezing in the winter.

Narrow, crowded aisles.



The normal speed for steam engine locomotives was about 25-30 mph in 1864. Before that, the best they could get was 15 mph. Trains had to stop every 30 miles to take on water to make the steam so it took forever and a day to get somewhere.

(This photo of a Pullman passenger train doesn’t depict those in the Old West which were bare of luxury.)

The traveler got covered from head to foot with thick soot, smoke and dust that flew in through the open windows. Wearing dusters over their clothing helped some, but they were hot. I guess it depended on how desperate you were a little bit clean. Sometimes women wrapped their hair with a kind of close-fitting cap.

In wintertime, the train company would remove two or three seats from one side and make room for a small stove. Passengers near it roasted while those at the end of the car froze. Toilets were sometimes no more than a curtained off chamber pot. Imagine how embarrassing that would be!

At night, a solitary lamp burned at one end of the car to provide light. Trying to sleep was almost impossible.

The only good thing was the train stations. Passengers could get off, use the facilities and eat a meal. I’m sure they took full advantage of those depots and every precious minute.

Wrecks were a common occurrence. Trains were known to collide, run off the tracks or derail by some large obstacle. Since wood was the #1 type of material used to construct trains until much later in the 1800s, fire was a constant threat. A lot of passengers died from the train catching fire. The coal the engineer burned in order to create steam for the engine was a major concern in a wreck.

This method of travel was by far the fastest but not necessarily the safest and even today there are horrible train wrecks that kill passengers.

The next time you grumble at having to stand in a long check-in and security line at the airport, have your flights canceled, or ride in your air-conditioned car with its soft upholstery and get stuck in traffic don’t complain. We have it so much better than our ancestors it’s not even funny. Just take a minute to appreciate what you have and remember that nothing is ever going to be perfect no matter how advanced our society becomes.

Do you think you’d like to go back in time and take a journey by stagecoach, train, or wagon? If so, which method would you prefer? Or do you mind the endless screenings and lines and cancellations? How about getting stuck in traffic, do you gripe or just accept and make the most of it?


Train Travel in the 1800s Was Hazardous — 7 Comments

  1. Good morning Linda- thanks for all the wonderful train info. I imagine it was hot or cold depending on the time of year. I’d of loved to try all 3 back in time, but just one time. But my preference would of been the wagon train. But, I bet it was the slowest and probably the hardest of all. Yes we all have it way better than our ancestors and we should not complain. Even with delays on airliners we still can get from NY to CA in a one day trip. And even with delays driving, it’s usually not to long of a wait, even if it’s an hour we still can get to our destination within hours.
    As far as trains, it would be fun to travel on one, but that’s never been on my bucket list, but one time traveling through some parts of our beautiful country at a slow pace would be a true treat. Thanks again for such a great articles on trains. Have a great Monday my sweet lovely sister friend.

    • Hi Tonya…..My oldest sister just got home from a train trip across the western part of the U.S. She had a great time and saw so much breathtaking country. Of course, she could get off and really experience the beautiful scenery. I guess there are drawbacks to everything. I think someday I’d like to take a train trip. I think it might be fun.

      Love you, sister friend!

      • We should go together and see the country. The western part would be what I’d love, but back east would be beautiful, too.

    • Hi Tretha…..Great to have you. This is a surprise. I hope you’re doing well. Thank you for the wonderful Birthday card. I loved it and hearing from you. The Tahoe it is. You can set the temperature wherever you want, stop when you want, and eat when you want. Sounds good to me.

      Love you, pretty friend!

  2. Some of my family members went on a train ride in the Blue Ridge. Since it was summer, the train was open and all seemed well for a short ride, however, as you mentioned in your article, there was the coal dust from the engine that became annoying and added a layer of grime to everyone’s clothing. My sister got coal duct in her eyes and ended up at the doctor’s office a day or so after the train ride. I can imagine how uncomfortable and tiring such a trip would have been back in the day.
    Still, trains are romanticized in stories and I can’t help but wonder if it would be fun to ride on one.
    I used to love to travel by any means available, but now I don’t. I don’t think I would want to go back in time and make use of the means of travel back then, but if I had to, I would take the train. I would ride it in the winter, wear layered clothing and take my own blanket and pillow with me. I would wear no jewelry and have a derringer in my garter.
    I loved this article, Linda. Trains are such a fascination for me.

    • Hi Sarah…….Oh my goodness! I’m so sorry about your sister. Definitely not good. I’m sure she saw some beautiful sights there in the Blue Ridge. Travel was such a problem back in the early days and, despite the drawbacks, trains got people to their destinations faster. I’ve never ridden on a real train and I would love to experience it at least once. My big sister just returned from a scenic tour of the western states by rail and she loved it. But her train was modern and totally enclosed. I think a trip by rail of that kind would be fun.

      Yes of course, we’d have to take our pillow and derringer!

      Love you, lady!