Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1982, pp. 41-54.
From Chicago it is more than twenty-two hundred miles overland to any of the great cities of the Pacific Coast. For almost a century those who made this crossing traveled by train. If they chose to watch, and most did, they saw a three-day pageant of plain, mountain, and desert as it unfolded, hour after hour, across their view from the train window. The high point of the drama might have been an early evening view of Glacier Park, a crossing of the Great salt Lake at dawn, or a midday climb over Glorieta, but the thousands who saw the West this way brought home other memories, too.
With a regularity that even the most disinterested traveler must have come to expect by journey's end, the pageant was diverted every few minutes by the fast approach through swirling dust and raining cinders of a neat row of frame houses, followed always by store buildings, churches, elevators, a crossing where somebody stood waiting, then a depot, followed by more houses, and finally back to open fields again, all encountered in a flash, quickly blurred in the memory by so many others like it already passed.
Day and night, these towns along the western railroads kept a rhythm that was interrupted only when one of them was important enough to command the train to stop: La Junta, Glendive, or McCook might be observed more carefully, but hundreds of others were only glimpses, unremembered and unremarkable, except in their predictable appearance and disappearance, mile after mile. They made an impression collectively, not as individual places. Their similarities were noted far more than their differences, not only by those who passed through them quickly and in succession, but also by those who knew them individually and up close. Railroad towns were far more numerous than most people realized, and the story of how they became such a fixture of the landscape requires more than the simple, functional explanation that they were necessary.
As the transcontinental railways stretched west in the 1860s and '70s, "every temporary terminus of track laying became a city, wicked, wonderful, and short-lived." A former railroad agent wrote in Harper's Magazine of one such place at the end of track in western Kansas. The town of Coyote consisted of "canvas saloons, sheet-iron hotels, and sod dwellings, surrounded by tin cans and scattered playing cards" j its principal street, known as "Rat Row," was temporary home for a gang of Irish track laborers whose behavior was set forth in shocking detail. The writer held that "the Pacific railways have been responsible for more and worse towns than any other single cause."
From the start, the railroad towns were condemned for their unimaginative design. "Dropped at random upon the flat and featureless prairies along our western railroads," the new towns were predicted to be failures. "In the ordinary course of civilization, such characterless sites are not the ones to which populations cleave," wrote a typically harsh critic in the American Architect and Building News. To make matters worse, these blots on the record of city planning, these squalid shantytowns inhabited by ruffians, were the personal creations of railroad builders and their cronies, everyone's favorite symbols of greed and corruption in that Gilded Age.