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The Ticketless Traveler

Cross Country Travel in 1912

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An author telephoned Ask NYPL, the ready reference division of The New York Public Library, stating that she needed the "real facts" as to a cross country railroad trip from Seattle to Groton, Massachusetts in 1912. Indeed, this was the final information she would need to complete her novel. What would be the duration of each "leg" of such a trip? Which railroads would be taken? And what would be the cost of such a trip?

I told her that I would respond to her shortly but that the information would likely be for the year 1910, as that would be the year closest to 1912 that definitive records would be available for. With respect to the duration of the three legs (or changes at a railroad station from one train to another) of this trip, I obtained the answers from the most definitive source available from that period. This was The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Porto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Cuba, 42nd Year (January, 1910) This "1910 Official Railway Guide" is held by The Microforms Division of The New York Public Library. The 1910 Official Railway Guide is 1,486 pages long (but quite thoroughly indexed) and would provide the exact answers to some of the author's questions.

Using the 1910 Official Railway Guide, I determined that a trip by railroad at this time from Seattle to Groton, Massachusetts would require three legs. The first leg of this trip would have been from Seattle to Chicago. The  fictional traveler would almost certainly have purchased a ticket in Seattle to Chicago from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy ("C, B & Q") Railroad. Although this train schedule and its tickets were sold by the C, B & Q, according to the 1910 Official Railway Guide, that the train would have followed the (much more famous) "Northern Pacific" railroad network for most of the route to Chicago. Note that these trains were quite slow and made many stops. Still, it's possible to determine the precise amount of time each variation on this trip would have taken.

Unfortunately, the 1910 Official Railway Guide does not contain ticket prices. But I thought that the vast collection of relevant newspapers of that day held by the NYPL might well. Using the ProQuest Historical Database, (available at all NYPL locations), I searched the relevant Chicago newspapers and, according to an advertisement in The Chicago Daily Tribune of June 13, 1912, this trip from Seattle to Chicago would have cost $65.00 plus $10.00 for a lower Pullman berth if she wished to sleep in a bed.

In Chicago, if she was rich, she might have stayed at the city's pre-eminent hotel: The Palmer House. If she was middle class, she might have stayed in a "respectable lady's boarding house." If she was poor, she might have slept in Chicago's Union Station — which was where C,B & Q passengers arrived.

Breakfast held by New York Central System, the New Streamlined 20th Century Limited (Railroad) -- (English), Digital ID 3883647, New York Public LibraryThe New Streamlined 20th Century LimitedThe fictional traveler would then have boarded a train from Chicago to Boston. If she was relatively well off, she would take the very fast (and often memorialized in popular culture) 20th Century Limited. This train left Chicago's (other) La Salle Street Station at 2:30 p.m. and arrived the next day in Boston at 11:50 a.m. The time for this ride was exactly 21 hours and 20 minutes. This was one of the fastest trains of its day and it made almost no stops (hence the name "Limited.") If the fictional traveler took a slower (and cheaper) train she might have taken closer to 48 hours to make this trip. I searched The New York Times 1851-2009 that is available at all NYPL locations for the cost of a ticket on the 20th Century Limited between 1910 and 1912 and did locate many advertisements for it. Unfortunately, the New York Central Railroad felt that the "Limited" was so prestigious to ride that it never disclosed its price in its advertisements! But an article in The New York Times provides some figures that would be quite close for 1912. The price of a ticket on the 20th Century Limited in early 1920 was $32.70. This reflected an "extra fare" of $9.60 to ride the "Limited." And this (slightly lower) "extra fare" was in effect in the 1910 Official Railway Guide — so it almost certainly was in effect in 1912. And there was also a "Pullman berth" charge in 1910 for a lower berth.

For the last leg of her trip, the fictional traveler would have simply traveled from Boston to Groton, Massachusetts. And she would have purchased her ticket from the railway known as the "Acton branch" of the "Boston & Maine System." I could not locate the exact cost to Groton but it would have certainly been less than $3.00. And so the traveler completed her journey.

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