Whether I’m writing a story set in 1880 Texas or turn-of-the-century Chicago, more often than not, mode of transportation pops up and gives me fits, since it's important to me to depict any method of travel with historical accuracy.
For instance, when it comes to stagecoach travel, I can describe it in general terms of the characters stopping, roughly, every 15-25 miles for meals and swapping out the tired team for a fresh team, and I don’t necessarily have research the actual routes, since a stage could go, theoretically, wherever there was a passable road. That makes my writing life a lot easier.
However, incorporating railroad travel into a story presents challenges of knowing where the tracks were and at what time in history they were used. Since I strive for historical accuracy in my writing or, at the very least, historical accuracy with a hint of poetic license, I look deeper into the details when my characters travel by rail.
While it's convenient to put my heroine on a train in Laredo, Texas in September of 1880, have her stay on the train as it follows the Rio Grande all the way to El Paso, and then have her continue by rail north to her destination in Denver, Colorado, it isn’t historically correct for the year, and I won't write that into my story. In the American west of 1880, railroad lines were expanding, but it was a slow process, and there were gaps between towns or the railroads bypassed towns completely.
When I move forward in history, and my characters in Chicago need to ride the night train to New York, it’s important to get as many facts as correct as I can. For me to feel right about the story, I have to know departure and arrival times, duration of travel time between towns, train names, and station names, etc.
It can be a daunting research challenge for the writer to locate reliable transportation information so, over the years, I’ve collected many resources. I have of list of bookmarked Internet sites that I refer to for all modes of historical transportation.
For a web-based railroad source, I recommend the railroad map collection at the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/collection/railroad-maps-1828-to-1900/about-this-collection/
For book resources, here is a collage of books in my personal library, with the pertinent information listed below the picture.
Illustrated Book of Steam and Rail
The history and development of the train and an evocative guide to the world’s great railway journeys.
©2003 ISBN: 0-7607-4952-3
504 pages plus Index
The Cars of Pullman
©2010 ISBN: 978-0-7603-3587-1
171 pages plus Index
The Pullman System in the Golden Years of American Rail Travel
©1989 ISBN: 0-8018-4503-3
405 pages plus Index
Santa Fe Railway
©1997 ISBN: 978-0-7603-0380-1
126 pages plus Index
Santa Fe’s Raton Pass
©2010 ISBN: 978-1-933587-23-3
The Story of Union Station and the Railroads of Denver
©1981 ISBN: 0-918654-31-9
240 pages plus Index and additional maps
Great American Rail Journeys
The Companion to the Public Television Programs
©2000 ISBN: 0-7627-0614-7
190 pages plus Index
Railways Then and Now
A World History
©1975 ISBN: 0-517-520-36-2
Photo credits: Fotolia (train on bridge)and Wikipedia (vintage advertisement)
Until next month,
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