Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1998


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer 1998, pp. 213-26.


Copyright 1998 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


As the last of the Conestoga wagons crossed the Nebraska plains along the worn and rutted Oregon Trail, the tracks of the Union Pacific were already being laid. Telegraph wires had crossed the continent by 1861; the railroad would follow within the decade. Touted as the latest technology to transform space and time, the railroad was to "bind all portions of our country in one homogeneous organism of political, military, social, commercial and Christian nationality and power."2 Trains from the East transported consumer goods and consumers alike to the western territories, traversing in a single hour what once had taken a full day. Boxcars carried the plows and barbed wire that would refashion the Great Plains, as well as the household items that would domesticate it. Passenger cars held soldiers and farmers hoping to settle and reshape the West. But curiosity seekers also purchased railway tickets, eager simply to view a new land, not to inhabit it. By the 1860s tourism (a word coined at the beginning of the nineteenth century) began to shift the focus of its already burgeoning trade from foreign to domestic travels. Ads urged the leisure class to "First See America"3; travel guides instructed vacationers on what was to be seen. In the final decades of the nineteenth century railroad magnates reaped the profits of a golden age of leisure travel and editors filled the pages of newspapers, magazines, and books with literary accounts of railway journeys.

Words penned by tourists reveal far more than just the characteristics of their accommodations or the scenes and events they encountered along the way. Ideologies lie entangled in descriptions, and each repetition reinforces their cultural significance. By examining tourist responses to one brief portion of the Union Pacific's transcontinental route through the Platte River Valley of central Nebraska, we can explore the far-reaching influence of the ideologies of progress and tourism (Fig. 1). For the travelers' views of this region were framed not only by the train car window but also (and perhaps primarily) by the "vision" promoted by those who had made the journey earlier. I analyze the interplay of these various discourses-to explore the forces that shaped the tourist gaze (and in so doing reshaped the Nebraska plains at the close of the nineteenth century). Perhaps underlying all, and most fundamental, was a reconceptualization of space and time influenced by both technological and cultural changes.

Tourism both extends and suspends capitalist practices. Though a form of consumerism, tourism also entails a temporary abandonment of daily business routines and transactions. Victor and Edith Turner's analysis of the Christian pilgrimage, especially their identification of the three distinct phases of their journey, has been applied to tourism. Travelers first undergo a social and physical separation from their ordinary acquaintances and familiar surroundings. Secondly, they experience a state of liminality, an "anti-structure ... out of time and place" where conventional social ties are suspended and new bonds of community are formed. And finally, upon their return home, the travelers are reintegrated into former social ties, though often with a change in status upward.4 The leisure trip becomes yet another prized consumer acquisition.