Railroad to Zion

By Beverly J. Ahlstrom

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And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, … and all nations shall flow unto it (Isa. 2:2).

After May 10, 1869, pioneer children still sang, but they did not walk and walk and walk on their way to Utah. On that sunny day in Promontory, Utah, two big black locomotives from opposite sides of the continent met. The Jupiter was a wood-burning steam engine from California, and Number 119 was a coal burner from the east. Now members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could travel to Zion by railroad car instead of by covered wagon or with handcarts.

Pretend that you live in England and it is 1870. Your family accepts the gospel, and you are all baptized. At this time, the Church urges members to join the Saints in Utah, so your family decides to go. How do you start?

The first step is to sell your house and most of your belongings. Then you travel to Liverpool, England. Someplace on the seven miles of docks, you board a ship to America. You travel steerage, which means that you live in an open room with many people and everyone’s belongings while crossing the Atlantic Ocean. It takes thirty-five to fifty-five days.

In New York, you are taken to Castle Garden by ferryboat to be “cleared for entry.” This can be scary because family members are separated until everyone has medical and eye exams. Sick people and those who don’t have at least twenty-five dollars are sent back to their own countries. Finally your family is together again. Your father has to answer some questions about where you are planning to go, if you know anyone in America, and if he has a job waiting for him. After your names are recorded, you are free to go to the train station.

There are many railroad companies, many routes, many choices. After buying your ticket, you get on a special immigrant car, called a “zulu,” with your mother. There is a separate car for men. Both cars have hard benches, dirty glass windows, and a wood-burning stove. Kerosene lamps hang from the ceiling. In winter, it is very cold; in summer, very hot.

The whistle blows, and slowly you start off, rocking and swaying and picking up speed. Soon you are traveling twenty-five miles per hour! In less than an hour you can go farther than the 1847 pioneers traveled in a whole day.

You will be in Utah in less than a week—unless there is a storm, or the train derails or breaks down or is robbed, or there are animals on the tracks. (One time, when a train hit a herd of cattle, the engine was derailed. The passengers got off, built a fire, butchered the dead cattle, and cooked steaks until help arrived.)

The conductor comes through your car, calling for tickets. He is dressed in a uniform with shiny brass buttons. He might wear a pistol on his belt or carry a rifle.

A little later, a boy called a news-butcher comes by, selling things you might need: bottled water, soap, candy, newspapers and books, tin pitchers, and even pillows.

On the train, you hear many languages, and everyone is going to different places. Some are going to California for gold or to Nevada for silver, some to the Great Plains to farm. Behind you, a woman rocks a crying baby, and across the aisle a mother spreads blankets for her children to sit on.

The car smells like unwashed people, smoke, sausages, and onions. A little boy jumps up and down on his bench. Smoke and cinders from the engine blow past the window.

Every few hours, the train stops at a town for wood and coal and water for the locomotive. Townspeople board the train, selling apples, bread, milk, and newspapers. Sometimes you get off and go to an eating house, where you sit in a large room and have lunch or dinner. Often the food isn’t very good, and you must eat quickly—it’s time to get back on the train!

At night, after the kerosene lamps are turned down, you go to sleep in the same car while other people talk above the clickety-clack of the wheels on rails.

Sometimes the tracks end at a river. Then you take all your belongings, get off the train, get on a ferry and cross the river, then climb onto a new train to continue your journey.

The Great Plains seem endless and treeless. Once, you see some buffalo, and sometimes you see prairie dogs popping in and out of their burrow “cities.”

Then the land begins to climb and climb and climb into the Rocky Mountains. There! Look quick! There is Thousand Mile Tree, marking the spot where the railroad is one thousand miles long.

Eventually you pass Devil’s Slide, two long ridges of rock close together that look like a slide down the side of Weber Canyon.

Finally, tired and dirty after two months or more of traveling, you’re in Ogden, Utah, nicknamed Junction City. Stepping into Union Station, a two-story wood building painted bright red, you think it looks about the same as the other depots you’ve stopped at. It’s hard to believe that you’re really here!

At no extra charge, you can continue by train to Salt Lake City. There you might meet the prophet, see the temple walls being built, and say to yourself, as Brigham Young did when he first saw the Salt Lake Valley, “This is the right place.”

Illustrations courtesy of Visual Resource Library