Transcontinental passenger service - Chicago or St. Louis? A historical question

415 views
9 replies
1 rating 2 rating 3 rating 4 rating 5 rating
  • Member since
    January, 2015
  • 7 posts
Transcontinental passenger service - Chicago or St. Louis? A historical question
Posted by Jack 64 Brown on Friday, September 06, 2019 4:58 PM

We all know that Chicago had, by 1870, become the chief rail hub of the Midwest -- indeed of the US.  But by 1875, St. Louis could claim a real advantage, with nearly all rail passenger services concentrated at a single station. The city's new Union Station (1894) was the largest in the country.  By contrast, Chicago had 5 mainline stations in the Gilded Age, making many intercity connections into a hassled transfer by hack, bus, or el across a busy city.

So on one level, St Louis carriers "should" have done well in the transcontinental passenger business.  But a look at any Official Guide suggests that nearly all the business went through Chicago.  Chicago certainly had far more passenger service overall.

Here is my question: can anyone put me on to original sources (1880-1930) that evaluated the pros and cons of the two cities for transcontinental travel?  Or historians accounts?

Did eastern and western carriers enter joint agreements that boosted one or the other city (esp in Golden Age - ie 1880-1930).  Did fares advantage one city over the other?  Travel times?

I know about Robert Young and his 1946 ad campaign "A hog can cross the country without changing trains, but you can't."  But I am asking different questions of an earlier period.  Surely this topic engaged editors, passenger agents, and railroad presidents for many decades.

I posted this topic yesterday on the General Forum on Trains.com. It now has 10 replies.  One was a helpful suggestion to post here.  Another reply said I was asking the wrong question of the wrong period.  That well-meaning person then held forth with 700 words on the stuff he knew.  But not on the questions I posed. 

I'd really appreciate any replies that speak to the questions I raise above.  Best of all would be leads on sources.

  • Member since
    February, 2002
  • From: Mpls/St.Paul
  • 11,203 posts
Posted by wjstix on Monday, September 09, 2019 12:46 PM

You're assuming that some person or cabal sat down and made decisions to favor Chicago and not St.Louis. I suspect the real answer is just that more railroads ran from New York to Chicago than New York to St.Louis, and with better service, so it was easier to get to Chicago and change trains there. Plus at least four transcontinental routes (NP & GN (via CB&Q), UP (via C&NW), and ATSF) weren't all that close to St. Louis.

Stix
  • Member since
    August, 2005
  • From: At the Crossroads of the West
  • 10,164 posts
Posted by Deggesty on Monday, September 09, 2019 2:41 PM

Certainly, very few passengers going to the Pacific Northwes went by way of  St. Louis, unless they were touring the country.

Early in the 19th century, St. Louis, with its river location, did attract the fur trade. From 1854, the Ohio and Mississippi RR began offering service between Cincinnati and East St. Louis. I know that there was rail service east of Cincinnati, but I do not know just what the service was.

What other roads, if any, reached East St. Louis from the East before 1854? 

Johnny

  • Member since
    September, 2011
  • 4,260 posts
Posted by MidlandMike on Monday, September 09, 2019 9:48 PM

The Federal gov't funded the National Road from Cumberland, MD (head of navagation on the Potomic River) toward St. Louis.  They pulled funding on it while it was 60 miles short of STL, after the Panic of 1837 and as railroads were supplanting roads.  And the railroads were building toward Chicago.

  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 8,261 posts
Posted by Overmod on Tuesday, September 10, 2019 9:03 AM

We're all answering the wrong question here and (speaking directly as the promulgator of the 700-word opinion answer) we need to start addressing the actual question he keeps posing.

What he wants is scholarly work discussing the reasons why Chicago predominated over St. Louis for the run-through interchange business, even after congestion and other issues in Chicago started hampering passenger convenience, and original sources that document attempts by St. Louis and Chicago (or significant groups of 'influencers' representing those areas) to develop through service, specifically, and then to gain increased 'share' of through passenger traffic or stimulate demand for that particular thing.

I'm sure there is considerable scholarship, published and unpublished, on that topic, but I have no hard sources or even references for him.  I suggest that he get in touch with Mike MacDonald (through PM to Vince) who will either have a leg up on this SPECIFIC situation, or be able to find him sources.

Chris Baer at Hagley may have information on railroads building from the East to various perceived traffic sources or sinks in the West, in the original documentation, and I know he has compiled some fairly good timelines of important events by year (I used this for a starting point for research into the Reading Combine).  My impression is that the railroad that put 'the most' into high-speed direct connections from major population sources in the East to St. Louis was the Pennsylvania, but this was effectively done only decades after Chicago had achieved its dominance as an East-West transfer point, and almost all the material I have seen over the years seemed to indicate PRR regarded St. Louis mostly as an endpoint for exchange with other roads (who would assume full risk and profit for their trains) rather than an opportunity for full runthrough of service.  

Note that the issue of the Mexican Pullmans factors into this discussion; it is possible that borderline-profitable or non-time-critical Pullman 'through' operations (by car, not by full train) would be routed and exchanged through less time- or volume-critical points, of which St. Louis by then might be an example.  We took up a recent example of a different through Pullman service which foundered explicitly on 'high terminal expenses in Chicago' with, apparently, little if any consideration of diversion through a different connecting city.  But again, what he wants is scholarly analyses of this, with good primary sources.

There is a great deal of primary history referring to the relative growth of Chicago and St. Louis as transportation 'hubs', going back at least as far as the National Road and involving the temporary supremacy of canals and waterborne transportation over roads as the predominant force in interstate commerce through the region.  But again, what he wants is demonstrable published (and presumably peer-reviewed, etc.) scholarship on these issues, not our opinions on the subject.

  • Member since
    February, 2002
  • From: Mpls/St.Paul
  • 11,203 posts
Posted by wjstix on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 12:56 PM

Well actually the original question was asking about finding original sources (1880-1930) of materials "that evaluated the pros and cons of the two cities for transcontinental travel?". My point was that the question seems to imply that the railroads sat down together and made a conscious choice to use Chicago instead of St.Louis to access the western transcons. Nothing like that ever happened, so no one created a book or a large report to that effect. It was a series of separate unrelated decisions based on where the railroad was, their economic conditions at the time, etc. It's kinda like asking "who got together and decided that Wisconsin would be the main state for the US dairy industry?".

Stix
  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 8,261 posts
Posted by Overmod on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 2:27 PM

He's got two questions going, one of which is the 'objective' comparison of Chicago and St. Louis as through passenger gateways, and the other is organized attempts to promote one or the other for that specific function.  I was reviewing the Chicago history of transportation volume on railroads, which has some of the peripheral trends affecting things in various ways, but that doesn't go into enough detail on the specific areas of interest.

  • Member since
    January, 2015
  • 7 posts
Posted by Jack 64 Brown on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 6:53 PM

Thanks to Overmod and to WJStx for your replies.  Just to clarify, I am know that no railroad decided to boost Chicago or burden St. Louis per se.  But I am certain that many original sources, published between 1880 and 1930 (or later), addressed the pros and cons of passenger transfers in those two cities.  Would-be passengers needed advice.  Chambers of Commerce did boost their own cities (and knocked rivals).  Railway passenger departments wooed and guided customers.  Leading journalists (like Matthias Forney at The Railroad Gazette) offered insightful commentary on such matters.  (Indeed I bet there was more comment every time a Chicago carrier shifted from one terminal to another).  Railway economists surely saw transfers as a central element in the national system.

In writing to these forums, I am hoping for leads on these kinds of sources.  It seems like a topic that might have also engaged editors of the fan press - David Morgan, Freeman Hubbard, others.

To simplify the question, I phrased it as a matter of transcontinental travel.  But of course it was much more complicated -- and more interesting.  Travelers between Washington DC and Denver, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Atlanta and Minneapolis -- they all needed to change trains at a gateway point en route.  Typically Chicago.  But not necessarily.  And as Chicago boomed (for all the reasons noted by others here), its congested success became an argument to at least consider transfers elsewhere.

Thanks to all who have read or contributed to this thread.  I am writing a history of the Eads Bridge, hence the question.  Really my account is much broader than the bridge, since Eads authored an entire infrastructure including the bridge, tunnel, Union Depot, and East St. Louis freight terminals.  It took 30 years to fully build out, a story that involves Jay Gould and JP Morgan -- and the US Supreme Court.  And it is fascinating.  Few other cities (any?) had this chance to craft an entire rail infrastructure before their period of great growth  Piecemeal evolution was the norm

 

  • Member since
    March, 2016
  • From: Burbank IL (near Clearing)
  • 11,457 posts
Posted by CSSHEGEWISCH on Thursday, September 12, 2019 10:13 AM

The building of the Eads Bridge and infrastructure is really not very different than the building of the St. Clair Tunnel, Detroit River Tunnel, Penn Station and approaches, or any of a number of other major river crossings.  It basically involves the building of the bridge (or tunnel), approaches, supporting yards and other ancillary properties.  I'm sure that aside from the Eads Bridge plus what eventually became TRRA, most of the railroads on both sides of the Mississippi were built individually without real consideration of the other roads.

The daily commute is part of everyday life but I get two rides a day out of it. Paul
  • Member since
    September, 2003
  • 8,261 posts
Posted by Overmod on Thursday, September 12, 2019 11:59 AM

Funny that I remembered a kind of 'definitive' engineering history of the Eads Bridge being written for the centenary, in the early Seventies -- don't see it now.

I think there are many parallels with the Wheeling bridge, including part of the reason for the 'elephant' stunt.  You will note that the bridge comes just at the point where railroad traffic is important, but not important enough to avoid an impossible-to-work 4000' approach tunnel; in an era where electric working is not ready for use yet but transfer to coke-burning engines isn't wholly practical.  It has never really been a surprise that the bridge company went bankrupt in a year, and not too long later it became embroiled in much the same overexcited empire-building shenanigans that the Poughkeepsie Bridge project would engender less than a decade later.  As soon as you have some mogul's terminal railroad controlling trans-Mississippi traffic, you're likely to have limits on any one member's advantage ... and continued view of the bridge as a glorified ferry service between separate railroads that may or may not be ultimately intended as a Glorious Transcon.

Meanwhile, note that the essential point, organized competitive railroad building toward St. Louis either anticipating the great bridge, or taking advantage of it in the years shortly after its completion, doesn't seem to have happened.  In the case of the Eads Bridge I've always thought it related to the Panic of 1873 and the subsequent rise of the penny-pinchers, but there was certainly an opportunity once the TRRA thing was complete to have St. Louis touted as an ideal and quick gateway to places in the West, something that a map of actual main-line development even as late as the early 1900s does not show.  The financially stable "Western" roads in the years after completion were all 'naturally' poised to go to or through the 'corner' under the lake that constitutes Chicago, and we can include in this the immediately-post-Credit Mobilier UP/Pacific Railroad with optimized construction northeast across Illinois to all the logical Eastern connections at the time, with the north-south route that became consolidated in the IC being the logical connection to "St. Louis" or to what was remaining of river shipping, a force that made life miserable for the bridge people even as it was rapidly losing distinctive competence as an economic and political force -- here a parallel with Wheeling is both direct and instructive, I think. 

Less certain to me, as something you may want to note in the book, is why the heroic approaches to the 'other' Mississippi crossing in St. Louis remained so damn lame and slow for so long.  Even today access is ridiculously hampered on the east side, and the extended structure on the far side has severe reverse bends and miles and miles of rickety restricted speed to make the grade. 

Something I've postulated is that the early money, and early completion, hobbled the construction of actual through railroads in the critical following decades, leading to much the same long-term problem as, say, all the curves in the early B&O routing, or all the tight-clearance tunnels on the CNO&TP, posed.  Note how little it helps to have a terminal company in charge of how a river crossing modernization that might benefit some 'members' at the expense of others would be managed ...

SUBSCRIBER & MEMBER LOGIN

Login, or register today to interact in our online community, comment on articles, receive our newsletter, manage your account online and more!

FREE NEWSLETTER SIGNUP

Get the Classic Trains twice-monthly newsletter