Saturday, July 26, 2014

Historical Railroad Resources by Kaye Spencer

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:

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

Night Trains
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
158 pages

Denver’s Railroads
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,


Fall in love…faster, harder, deeper with Kaye Spencer romances
Twitter - @kayespencer


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Great railroad sources. If you get a chance to "climb aboard" historic trains at museums, it gives you a great perspective on how it must have felt to travel by rail, whether in the locomotive or in a plush (or plain) passenger car. Born too late, right?

    1. While I have ridden a train, I haven't visited a train museum. It would be great research fun to ride to take a historic ride.

  3. Kaye,
    Writing about rail travel is tricky. I am lucky to have railroad experts where I work. They get questioned on a regular basis. I also like to go to original sources such as the writings of Grace Greenwood, aka Sara Lippincott, and Helen (Hunt) Jackson to read their feelings and experiences.
    Thank you also for sharing your resources on this great post. Every little bit helps create the 'true' story. Doris

    1. I agree about going to original sources. There's nothing like reading the real stories to get a feel of what it must have been like to live 'back then'.

  4. What a wonderful bunch of research books and resources! I've been fascinated by railroads ever since I was a little girl. When I was in kindergarten our class got to ride the train from Duncan to Marlow, which is not but about 20-30- miles, but it was such an adventure, and made me love railroads from that moment on.

  5. Cheryl,

    I've ridden the Amtrak from Lamar, Colorado to Kingman, Arizona and back. On the return trip, there was a cloudburst ahead of us at Las Vegas, New Mexico, and the train couldn't go on because the tracks were washed out. I had quite an adventure getting back to Lamar--another 170 miles--and not via train. lol

  6. Thanks for the great website!

    I heartily recommend that every Western writer take the chance to ride on a real steam locomotive if you can do so - you can find a list of surviving steam locomotives at

    One of the things that surprised me about my ride was how absolutely filthy we were at the end of it! Granted, we kept leaning out to take photos, but the cinders and dust flew back all along the train and got onto everything. There's nothing quite like the actual experience to give your characters a more accurate train ride.

  7. Thanks so much for your list of railroad resources. I have a few good references, but I will look seriously into adding some of your suggestions to my collection. We are railroad people in my family -- my grandfather retired as a railroad engineer and my uncle was unfortunately killed while working as an electrician for the railroad. Most of us have been fascinated by all things railroad. Thanks again.

  8. Hey there, You have done an incredible job. I'll certainly digg it and personally recommend to my friends.
    I'm sure they'll be benefited from this website.

    Here is my web blog :: youtube mp4 converter ()