Booking a Train in 1880

So you think train schedules are difficult to decipher nowadays? Try booking a trip from southern Arizona to Denver in 1880 using 2011 web research.

That’s what I was trying to do last week, with a combination of fictional and real towns in the mix. The idea was to get a reasonable travel plan for my characters.

The challenge for me is in deciding what is reasonable. How much time should I devote to poring over railroad buff websites, finding the exact stops and times and years and costs of this trip and how much should I just wing it?

It wasn’t easy to get in and out of Arizona in 1880, nor was it easy to cross the Rocky Mountains. The maps I find have little lines all over them. Some represent railroad tracks, some represent stage coach routes, some indicate smaller trails, some are rivers and streams and it doesn’t always say which is which.

One of these train schedules gives times between Yuma and Tombstone, when I know for a fact there was never a rail depot in Tombstone. The small print tells me that you had to get a stage from another town to actually get to Tombstone, but I guess you could book that through the railroad.

My partner spends this much time surfing around for the best airfare deals when we all have to go somewhere. I’m not actually going anywhere. And the town my characters are in is fictional. It roughly resembles the depot-less Tombstone, but if it’s a fictional town, can it be on the line of a fictional railroad?

For some reason, I think it can’t. I’m okay with a fictional town, but I insist on verisimilitude in getting in and out of it.

At this point, you think I’m nuts, right?

But when I read historical fiction and come across something that just wouldn’t/couldn’t/shouldn’t have happened in the period in which it’s set, I get really annoyed.

Maybe my solution is to make sure no one who reads my book knows too much about U.S. railroad history. Or to write more vaguely. Or to have them walk…


8 thoughts on “Booking a Train in 1880

  1. Well, if it’s a fictional town, why can’t there be a fictional railroad line to the fictional town? As long as it’s not a bullet train or monorail, but a steam engine on old fashioned railroad tracts, I think it would be okay. (Or coal powered train, whichever was in use at the time.)

  2. I think I may have found a real town near my fictional one (nice thing about a fictional town, you can put it wherever you want it) with a train to Denver.

  3. I love this. So cool.
    The equivalent of spending two days researching what becomes a footnote in a monograph.
    You are not nuts, you are awesome!

  4. I kinda wish I could write footnotes after all the research I do to just have a character say “and then we’ll ride to Blah place and catch the train.” I want credit for the hours of work that went into deciding where Blah should be…

  5. One thing that might help (I got this info from a Canadian line, but it might help in your visual) ; they had to have about 7 miles between towns because they needed to restock the coal for the fire.

  6. That is one interesting problem to have! Sounds like you got it figured out in the long run, though! Thanks for sending me the link to this. 🙂 Loved reading about it!

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