February 21, 1804, Penydarren ironworks in South Wales. A steam locomotive pulled a train along the tramway of the Penydarren ironworks, near Merthyr Tydfil, and the world’s first steam-powered railway journey in the world made a notch on the timeline of history.
It was a new age. Over the next century, trains would become a vital mode of transporting everything from food to coal to building materials to passengers. In the United States, the Transcontinental Railroad connected east to west, a particularly daunting undertaking that took years and lives—and would alter the landscape of the country forever, physically and culturally.
The Pullman Company, along with other companies, elevated train travel from mere transportation to luxurious accommodation. This new network of sleeper cars became the worlds’s great hotel, with 100,000 passengers checking into Pullman sleeper cars each night. The company owned 4,000,000 towels and 3.5 million bed sheets, which were laundered at 10 Pullman laundromats across the country. (Watch this video to learn more.)
Private railroad cards became, to those who could afford the accommodation, what private planes are today. Luxury was on the move.
As with anything that falls under the label of Progress, the whole story wasn’t reflected in the fine, polished surfaces of a Pullman car or in the impeccable standard of service on the Orient Express. It all took a staggering, back-breaking, and often dangerous amount of work to build the rail system—and then there was the workforce required to serve passengers.
But it all somehow translated into a romantic way to travel. And in many ways, the romance of it survives today even though most of us cross the miles by car or by air.
So we hold on to train travel as something more than just a romantic notion. We seek it out. We get the Eurail Pass. We dream of going back in time to board the Orient Express. We fall hard for the chance to sit back and watch beautiful scenery—mountains or flatland, rivers or gorges, cities or villages—roll away behind and beneath us.
Relatively speaking, rail travel is pretty new to us. Not even 150 years since the golden spike was driven into the rail at Promontory Point, Utah. Maybe that has something to do with why it’s still exciting and even romantic. We’re not so far removed from the newfangled, adventurous notion of it all.
May it remain so.