Intra-Continental Travel in the 1880s. Help needed.

Dec 2018
3
New Zealand
#1
I'm currently working on some fiction in which a small group of investigators are called to travel from Chicago, IL to Austin, TX.

Would it have been more practical in the 1880s to:

Riverboat down the Illinois River, to the Mississippi to New Orleans, then across to Matagorda Bay and up the Texan Colorado River to Austin?

OR

Go via various railroads?

Any ideas or discussion would be of great assistance.
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,188
Las Vegas, NV USA
#2
I'm currently working on some fiction in which a small group of investigators are called to travel from Chicago, IL to Austin, TX.

Would it have been more practical in the 1880s to:

Riverboat down the Illinois River, to the Mississippi to New Orleans, then across to Matagorda Bay and up the Texan Colorado River to Austin?

OR

Go via various railroads?

Any ideas or discussion would be of great assistance.
Are you looking for comfort or speed? River steamers offered comfort. From New Orleans or Memphis there were rail connections. Chicago however was the nation's largest rail hub so direct connections to Austin were available. I don't how direct or comfortable they were. This might help.

Burlington Route. - David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Austin, TX had rail service starting in 1871.

Train Tracks: A Journey on Austin's Railways
 

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,934
Dispargum
#3
By the 1880s Mississippi riverboats may have been in decline, unable to compete against the railroads. Fewer boats would have operated, which means longer waits between transfers from one boat to another. Boats would have been less well-maintianed, ie, dirty/damaged, as stressed riverboat companies tried to cut costs. Railroads would have been seen as modern and exciting while steamboats were old fashioned and boring. Unless your travelers were really hungry for nostalgia, they probably would have chosen the railroad. It's like going to Europe by jet aircraft or on the Queen Mary 2. The QM2 is nostalgic, comfortable, and maybe lets you avoid jet lag, but most people prefer to fly.
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,188
Las Vegas, NV USA
#4
^"Steamboats played a major role in the 19th-century development of the Mississippi River and its tributaries by allowing the practical large-scale transport of passengers and freight both up- and down-river. Using steam power, riverboats were developed during that time which could navigate in shallow waters as well as upriver against strong currents. After the development of railroads, passenger traffic gradually switched to this faster form of transportation, but steamboats continued to serve Mississippi River commerce into the early 20th century."

From "Steamboats of the Mississippi" Wikipedia.

It's certainly true for most smaller rivers that riverboats could not compete with railroads. My comment was only for a possible trip on the Mississippi to Memphis or New Orleans and taking the railroads from there. Unless you paid for luxury, rail travel was not very comfortable. There was often smoke depending on what car you were in, the seats were hard and meals were not served on the train. I don't think rest room facilities were that great either. If it were me, I'd take the riverboat to New Orleans and the train from there to Austin if time allowed. If not, than it's the rails but I'd bring a small pillow and some wet handkerchiefs.
 
Last edited:
Likes: Edratman

Chlodio

Ad Honorem
Aug 2016
3,934
Dispargum
#5
I can agree with that. Passenger travel declined after the Civil War but steamboats continued to carry freight into the early 20th century.
 
Dec 2018
3
New Zealand
#6
Thanks, everyone!

For the purposes of historical color, I think the Mississippi Steamboat (the characters can afford luxury) to New Orleans, followed by rail to Austin will work best.

I'm assuming that both river and rail journeys would have been racially segregated?
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,188
Las Vegas, NV USA
#7
Thanks, everyone!

For the purposes of historical color, I think the Mississippi Steamboat (the characters can afford luxury) to New Orleans, followed by rail to Austin will work best.

I'm assuming that both river and rail journeys would have been racially segregated?
Yes. In the 1880's. Reconstruction was over and southern states had passed or were passing laws and establishing practices to limit the rights of blacks. Your characters would encounter backs in service roles on the river steamer but not likely on trains unless services were provided. I think deluxe cars were provided on some major rail routes but I'm sure not about the New Orleans-Austin run. However you could take author's privilege there. Card game gambling was a favorite activity for men on the river steamers.

It should be understood that even in the slave era "house staff" cooked the meals, raised the children of their masters and were a constant presence in the home. So frequent contacts between trusted blacks and whites were the norm as long as everyone understood their roles in the postwar South. It was strictly segregated, but not with walls.
 
Last edited:
Likes: Edratman
Dec 2018
3
New Zealand
#8
Thanks, Stevev. Yes, I understood that blacks were well integrated into the daily life of whites, especially in the South, during this era.

One of the characters is a well-educated African American man with ties to usually white institutions, the remainder are white, two men and three women. I feel the wealth and status of the group should be able to overcome resistance to having a black man accompanying them. Outsiders might assume he is a valet or some other man-servant?

Any ideas as the cost for travel in this era?
 

stevev

Ad Honorem
Apr 2017
3,188
Las Vegas, NV USA
#9
Any ideas as the cost for travel in this era?
Not really, but if your characters are well off, it shouldn't matter. Train travel as I described earlier was for the average traveler. But by this time railroads were offering luxury service for a price, with padded seats, a smoking car where drinks were served, etc, but still not the spaciousness of a river steamer, so no card tables. Really rich people had their own rail cars and access to private trains.

In India poor passengers were packed into cars and paid almost nothing. The trains stopped frequently and passengers could refresh. That class of service never existed in the US but blacks were segregated in the South even if they had means.
 
Last edited:

Similar History Discussions