Riding on the Rails

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Riding on the Rails

The railroad quickly became a vital part of 19th-century American life. Everyone from immigrant travelers to wealthy women on holiday depended upon its service. This widespread accessibility amplified perceived differences among travelers as people with diverse needs, expectations, and customs shared this new intimate public space on the rails. The evolution of 19th-century railroad passenger cars, from design and decor to the physical placement on trains, reflected prevailing notions of luxury, comfort, and social order.


Essential Questions

How does continuity and change within the United States history influence your community today?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will:

  • Use critical thinking skills while interpreting a variety of primary-source material
  • Understand and compare incongruities in rail accommodations for emigrants and non-emigrant passengers.
  • Analyze the railroads as a representation of American society during the mid-nineteenth century

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. Present students with the pictures of the Pullman’s car as well as the Immigrant sleeping car. Have students infer what travel in those two cars might have felt like.
2. As a class read, Ms. Duffy’s account of her experience traveling in the Pullman car. Questions to consider include:
     a. How does Ms. Duffy describe her travels?
     b.What is her overall tone? 
     c.What hardships did she face?
     d.How does Ms. Duffy describe the emigrant train passengers?
     e.What differences become apparent between Ms. Duffy’s experience and the experiences of the people in the emigrant cars?
3. Hand out the “Discomforts of Old Cars” and the “Barbarous Inhumanity” article from The Irish American. Read them as a class and discuss the experiences of the immigrant passengers. Questions to consider include:
     a. What was it like to ride in an emigrant passenger car? 
     b. What hardships do passengers on the emigrant trains face?
     c. How are immigrant passengers treated by employees?
     d. Why were immigrants treated poorly?
     e. Why did so many immigrants travel across country on the trains?
4. Compare the two experiences the class just read. Ask the students why they think there were such great disparities between the Pullman car and the emigrant car. Discuss the negative views and attitudes many citizens had towards immigrants.  Do these reports support the idea of Americanization during the 19th and 20th centuries?
5. Bring these experiences into the larger context of the Industrial Revolution. What impacts did technological advancement have on social interactions? How did these technologies affect immigrants? 


  • Emigrant: A person leaving a country to move to another.
  • Head-end car: Generally placed at the front of the train, these cars were plainer, less elegant and had a longer life than other passenger cars. Baggage, mail, express and emigrant cars were part of this category.
  • Immigrant: A person who has moved to a new country.
  • Ladies’ Car: A private car for first-class female passengers who were traveling alone or were accompanied by a male escort.
  • Porter: A person hired to carry baggage at a railroad station or a hotel. Also, refers to an attendant in a railroad parlor car or sleeping car. Most railroad porters were African American.
  • Pullman car: Also called a railroad parlor car, sleeping car, or “Palace car.”  A railroad car that featured luxurious, first-class accommodations.
  • Sleeper: A railroad passenger car equipped with berths for sleeping. George Pullman began designing luxurious sleeping cars in 1865. 

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