The Lightning Express of 1876

The great transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869 when the Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah, joining the Central Pacific RR, which had been built east from California and the Union Pacific RR, which had been built west from Nebraska.  The rail system east of the Mississippi was pretty well developed, and, by 1869, was nearly rebuilt following the beating it had taken in the Civil War.

With the completion of the link between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific it was now possible to ride the rails all the way from New York to San Francisco.  Well, that was not strictly true.  In New York, passengers boarded the Pennsylvania RR in Jersey City, New Jersey after riding the ferry from Manhattan.  In California the Central Pacific RR tracks actually stopped at the waterfront in Oakland on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay.  Riders took a ferry to San Francisco to complete their cross-country journey.

The rail link was a miracle of mid-19th century industrial engineering. The train line climbed over three major mountain ranges:  the Appalachians, the Rockies, and—most difficult and tallest of all—the Sierra Nevada.  It crossed two vast empty plains:  the Great Plains and the Great Salt Desert with its hellish Humboldt Sink, where a river simply vanished into the desert sands.  It crossed two of the world’s largest rivers:  the Mississippi and the Missouri.  In its early days a train might even have to cope with buffalo on the track and hostile Native Americans. 

Despite the distance, the mountains, the desert and the buffalo, the rail trip was routinely accomplished in just about 7 days, extremely fast compared to the horse and wagon train speeds of just 10 years before.  It was over 3,000 miles, the width of a continent.  The trains averaged around 500 miles a day, or 20 miles per hour.  Of course, much of the trip was made at higher speeds than 20 miles per hour, but the mechanics of running a railroad, the changing of cars and locomotives, the loading and unloading passengers, freight, supplies, fuel and baggage kept the average down to about 500 miles per day.
Fast as that may seem for travel 140 years ago, given the motivation and the money, the trip could be made faster, even then—much faster—and it was, but just once until decades later.  In 1876, only seven years after the Golden Spike was driven, a train pulled out of the Jersey City Station of the Pennsylvania RR early on the morning of June 1, 1876 and began to speed west along the tracks.  All the way to California the mainline was cleared for it.  Other trains went onto side tracks for it.  Water, coal and supplies were readied for fast loading onto it.  Shifts of engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors were stationed at strategic points along the way to relieve the tired crews with a stop of only a few minutes. 

As the train raced westward word spread over the telegraph wires that paralleled the tracks.  The message was terse, but compelling:  “The Lightning Express is on the way.”  Stopping for only the shortest times possible to change equipment and crews, load fuel and supplies, running fast day and night, the train arrived in California on June 4.  The trip took just 83 hours and 39 minutes from Jersey City to Oakland—that’s 3 days, 11 hours and 39 minutes.  To the amazement of just about everyone, despite a washed-out track in Utah, equipment problems along the way and the vagaries of long distance travel, much of it far from railroad maintenance facilities or major cities, the train actually beat its estimated time of arrival by almost 12 hours.  This left the elaborate celebration prepared for its arrival in disarray, but it was happy disarray. 

The Arrival in Oakland

The Ferry to San Francisco

A cross-country trip that swift is a feat even today, unless you fly.  Google Maps estimates that an automobile driving from New York to San Francisco on a modern interstate highway, essentially non-stop, will still take almost exactly 2 days, assuming the drivers do not pass out from sheer exhaustion and gas, food and necessary facilities are available 24 hours a day all along the route.  Amtrak’s website shows that a train trip from Oakland to New York’s Pennsylvania Station takes 3 days, 9 hours and 15 minutes, only 2 hours faster than the Lightning Express.

But the feat was a near thing.  There were numerous mechanical problems.  The railroad equipment of 1876 was not made for sustained 50 or 60 miles per hour running.  An average speed, including all stops, of over 41 miles per hour had to be achieved to make it on time.  In Utah a section of road bed was washed out by a storm.  Chinese railroad laborers and Irish gandy dancers frantically built a temporary bypass, and the train went on.  The brakes on the Pullman Palace car failed, but it could not be abandoned, so Central Pacific crews added a couple of empty coaches to the train to supply added braking power descending the steep grades in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the train went on.  Multiple sticky brakes, failed steam lines, overheated axles, and probably a shortage of Champagne in the dining car threatened the trip, but ways were found to push the train on.

The Long Ravine Trestle

The dedication of the railroads and their crews to make the trip in the time allotted was so great that when an axle began to overheat on one of the cars during the crossing of the western desert, a Central Pacific train man leaned far out of the speeding train, one foot on the car’s foot bar and one hand on a ladder rung, opened the axle access hatch with his other hand and proceeded to stuff the reservoir box with oil soaked cotton followed by more oil to lubricate the overheated axle.  The train barely slowed down as he hung there by one hand.  Somehow, one hand covered with oil, he managed to climb back inside, the axle cooled, and the train sped on.

Four of the five railroads involved in the trip exchanged locomotives from time to time along their segments in order to avoid mechanical failure from running the engines hard for long periods of time.  But the entire final 875 mile leg of this incredible journey—that part over the Central Pacific’s track—was pulled by a single engine—Central Pacific locomotive #149, called the “Black Fox”—a powerful and fast McQueen Locomotive Works 4-4-0 unit.  Although other engineers spelled him, the Black Fox was driven most of the way from Ogden, Utah to Oakland California by Henry S. (Hank) Small, one of the Central Pacific’s most experienced engineers.  He pushed #149 and its train very hard over the last, long relay of the journey west.  That section of track included the Great Salt Desert, the Humboldt Sink and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  For his endurance and devotion to his job, he was awarded a gold medal by the trip organizers and royally fêted in San Francisco.  He was the Casey Jones of his day.

The "Jupiter," a Restored Central Pacific Locomotive Virtually Identical to the "Black Fox"

Was this demonstration of American supremacy in the Industrial Revolution organized by the railroad barons to show how fast and safe long distance train travel was?  Or perhaps by the government to promote national unity in the tumultuous years following the Civil War?  No to both, but the identity of the organizers of this amazing journey, in many ways, is just as interesting as the feat itself.

Simply put, the Lightning Express dash across the continent was a display of pure advertising and showmanship.  It was all arranged and paid for as publicity by Henry Jarrett, one of the principals of Jarrett & Palmer, the firm that managed the Booth Theater in New York City and produced theatrical performances all over the world.  Using his charm and money, he convinced the railroads in question (the Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh, Fort Worth & Chicago, the Chicago & North Western, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific) to give his chartered train the extraordinary treatment it needed to make the trip newsworthy.  Of course, it could not have been lost on the railroads that the trip would also promote the speed and comfort of “modern” travel.  In fact, several railroads started “Lightning Train” services after the success of the Lightning Express, although none of them was trans-continental.

In the Spring of 1876, Jarrett & Palmer had produced an extraordinarily successful run of Shakespeare’s Henry V, starring Lawrence Barrett, at the Booth Theater.  Barrett was a very popular actor and Jarrett & Palmer had not stinted on the production values of the play.  When the run at the Booth closed, the play was scheduled to open with the same cast in San Francisco.  Jarrett sensed an opportunity for the kind of excitement and publicity that fills theater seats and cash boxes.  Ostensibly on an extremely tight schedule to get his famous production to San Francisco, Jarrett convinced the railroads to provide the facilities for this special journey.  Jarrett made large of the fact that the play was going to close mere hours before cast, sets and costumes raced west to open in San Francisco only a few days later.  This assured that every single New York performance was sold out right up to closing night.

Of course, Jarrett paid the railroads well for the trip, but not all that much more than regular fares and freight charges.  The actors rode in the splendor and comfort of a special Pullman Palace Hotel Car, the “Marlborough,” were served fancy meals in the commissary car, and had their precious costumes and sets in the baggage car.  To make sure that due attention to the play and its actors was paid by the press, newspapers were invited to send select reporters on the train along with the actors for a modest sum.  Reporters from the London Times and New York Herald boarded in Jersey City for the whole trip.  Reporters for other papers joined for part of the journey.

Those Who Were On The Train and Others Involved

Publicity of the adventure preceded its departure by months.  Reports of the amazing journey were published in the New York Herald and other papers on a regular basis.  San Francisco’s Daily Alta California had almost daily stories about the preparations for the trip.  All, of course, mentioned the opening play.  It was also duly reported that the anticipated speed of the trip had caused the postal service to place the mail bound for India and Southeast Asia aboard the train.  The post office even created a special postmark for the mail on the train: “Jarrett & Palmer Fast Trans-Continental Express.”  Wells Fargo put a money safe in the baggage car at Omaha.  The New York Times contracted to have the train deliver its paper to Chicago on the same day it was printed in New York.  The ballyhoo created by the publicity had the desired effect; tickets for Henry V were selling fast.

In addition to selling tickets for the play, the publicity stunt worked like a charm.  Everyone knew about the great dash across the continent.  All across America people traveled to trackside along the route in order to see the Lightning Express roar by.  In towns the train passed in the middle of the night residents woke each other up and rang church bells to get out the crowd.  Everywhere fireworks and rockets were set off as it raced by.  Reporters on board dispatched stories to their papers from telegraph offices along the way.  A mob met the train when it arrived in Oakland and the ferry when it came to San Francisco, even though they were hours early.  There was a genuine outpouring of national pride in this great technological achievement.

But perhaps the funniest, and in many ways the most telling, of all the public demonstrations of pride and interest came in a small town in Nevada.  A few days before, a prominent local citizen, and former state legislator had passed away.  Knowing that the Lightning Express was coming and was expected at 4:00 pm, to safely avoid a conflict, the funeral had been set for 2:00 pm.  Just before 2:00 that day the church was packed, and the pastor was just rising to begin his service when suddenly the church doors banged open, and a man burst in, shouting, “Hurry!! She’s a comin, right now!”  Every man, woman and child present knew what that meant.  The Lightning Express was early!  The church emptied out as if the building were on fire.  Everyone ran outside.  Even the pastor recovered from his shock soon enough to join the crowd at trackside.  Only the deceased remained inside.  After the train dashed by, its whistle shrieking, the citizens returned quietly to the church, held a dignified ceremony and thought that it was one hell of sendoff for the old boy.  He probably would have thought so too.

A fully detailed account of the amazing journey can be read in The Jarrett-Palmer Express of 1876, Coast to Coast in Eighty-Three Hours, by J. C. Ladenheim, Harvest Books, 2008.