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FreightWaves Classics: Lightning Express goes coast-to-coast in 83 hours (in 1876!)

The Lightning Express. (Image:

Today, one can fly from one of the New York City-area airports to an airport in the San Francisco Bay area (a distance of nearly 2,600 miles) in less than seven hours. But that’s now; back then…

Traveling cross-country (1840-1870)

A trip by wagon train would take four to five and one-half months, depending on the size of the wagon train, which particular route was taken, weather conditions and other variables. Travel by stagecoach was much shorter; usually only about four weeks. A trip by stagecoach was also much more expensive. Both wagon trains and stagecoaches would usually leave from Independence, Missouri, so if travelers were coming from further east, that travel time would be added to the trip.

A wagon train is underway. (Photo:
A wagon train is underway. (Photo:

A voyage by ship from New York to California in the mid-1800s, was possible via Colombia’s Isthmus of Panama (where voyagers would take a train from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean and then board another ship). That trip would normally take about 45 days. The alternative was to sail around the tip of South America; that voyage usually took nearly 200 days. 

An advertisement for the Hornet touts the trip's length of only 105 days. (Image: Public Domain)
An advertisement for the Hornet touts the trip’s length of only 105 days. (Image: Public Domain)

Once the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, it took about seven to 10 days to make the trip during its first few years of operation.

The Transcontinental Express

As railroads improved and expanded the various transcontinental rail routes, the time to make the cross-country trip decreased.

However, the record for the trip prior to 1880 took place on June 4, 1876. Only 83 hours after leaving New York City, the Transcontinental Express (also known as the Lightning Express) arrived in San Francisco. The arrival of the Transcontinental Express train in San Francisco was widely publicized in newspapers and magazines across the nation. The new route effectively meant that the time to cross the vast distance between the East Coast and West Coast had been shrunk to a more manageable period.

That one would be able to travel across the nation in less than four days was inconceivable to previous generations of Americans. During the early 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson first dreamed of an American nation stretching from “sea to shining sea,” it took him 10 days to travel the 225 miles from Monticello to Philadelphia via carriage. Even with frequent changes of horses, the 100-mile journey from New York to Philadelphia demanded two days of difficult travel in a light stagecoach. At such speeds, the coasts of the continent-wide nation were months apart. How could leaders of such a vast country ever hope to keep it united?

However, as early as 1802, Jefferson had the glimmer of an answer. “The introduction of so powerful an agent as steam,” he predicted, “[to a carriage on wheels] will make a great change in the situation of man.” Although Jefferson never saw a train during his lifetime, he had glimpsed the future with the idea. Within 50 years, the United States would have more railroads than any other nation in the world. As noted earlier, the first transcontinental line linking the coasts was completed in 1869. Quite suddenly, a trip that had previously taken months was possible in as little as a week.

The transcontinental railroad’s route in 1869. (Image:

The transcontinental railroad

Less than one week after the first transcontinental railroad was completed, daily passenger service via the railroads began. It is hard for people today to understand, but the speed and comfort offered by rail travel (particularly compared to the alternatives of the time) was unheard of. Newspapers and magazines wrote very positive accounts about this new opportunity to cross the continent. 

For the wealthy, their trips on the transcontinental railroad were luxurious. First-class passengers rode in well-appointed railcars that featured plush velvet seats that converted into snug sleeping berths. Amenities included “steam heat, fresh linen daily and gracious porters who catered to their every whim.” At the cost of an extra $4 a day (about $88 today), wealthy travelers could choose the weekly Pacific Hotel Express, which offered first-class dining on board. As a happy passenger wrote, “The rarest and richest of all my journeying through life is this 3,000 miles by rail.”

A second-class coach on the transcontinental railroad. (Image:
A second-class coach on the transcontinental railroad.

The trip was not as fast or comfortable for those passengers who were either unwilling or unable to pay the first-class fares. Third-class travelers were often immigrants seeking a new life in the West. A third-class ticket cost $40 (about $880 today), which was less than half the price of first-class fare. There were no luxuries in third-class; the railcars were fitted with rows of narrow wooden benches and were normally full, noisy and uncomfortable. Third-class railcars were often attached to freight cars that were regularly shunted to sidings to make way for express trains. Therefore, the journey of third-class travelers might take as long as 10 days or more. However, even 10 days sitting on a hard bench was better than walking next to a Conestoga wagon on the Oregon Trail for as long as six months!

The nation’s railroads in 1876

The first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10, 1869; the Golden Spike was driven at Promontory Summit, Utah. That day, the Central Pacific Railroad, which had been built east from California, and the Union Pacific Railroad, which had been built west from Nebraska, were joined. To read more about the first transcontinental railroad, these recent FreightWaves Classics articles provide more detail (article 1, article 2 and article 3).  

The nation’s railway system east of the Mississippi River was well-developed prior to the Civil War. By the early 1870s, the system was nearly rebuilt following the damages inflicted during  the war. 

When the transcontinental railroad was completed, it was almost possible to travel by rail from New York to San Francisco. In New York, passengers boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad in Jersey City, New Jersey after crossing the river by ferry from Manhattan. When passengers reached the waterfront of Oakland, California, on the Central Pacific, another ferry ride would take them from the eastern side of San Francisco Bay to San Francisco, and the cross-country trip would be completed.

The meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. (Photo:
The meeting of the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869. (Photo:

The transcontinental railroad was a major feat of mid-19th century industrial engineering. The rail line crossed three major mountain ranges – the Appalachians, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada. It also crossed two vast (and at the time) empty plains – the Great Plains and the Great Salt Desert. In addition, it crossed two of the world’s largest rivers – the Mississippi and the Missouri. 

Despite the distance, the mountains, the desert and the rivers, the rail trip was extremely fast compared to the horse and wagon speeds of just a few years before. Trains averaged around 500 miles a day, or 20 miles per hour. While much of the trip was made at speeds above 20 miles per hour, there were delays to change locomotives and railcars, load and unload passengers, freight, supplies, fuel and baggage.

A locomotive used on the Transcontinental Express. (Photo:
A locomotive used on the Transcontinental Express. (Photo:

The Lightning Express 

A train left the Jersey City Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad early on the morning of June 1, 1876 and began to speed west along the tracks. From there to California, the mainline was cleared for the train. Other trains were moved to side tracks for it. Supplies, water and coal were made ready for fast loading. Shifts of engineers, firemen, brakemen and conductors were stationed at strategic points along the route to relieve crews; stops were very brief.  

As the train sped westward, word of its trip spread over the telegraph. The message was short but compelling: “The Lightning Express is on the way.” The Express stopped for as short a period as possible to change equipment and crews, load fuel and supplies. It rode the rails as fast as possible day and night, and arrived in California on June 4. The trip took 83 hours and 39 minutes from Jersey City to Oakland; in other words, only three days, 11 hours and 39 minutes. Along the route there were obstacles to overcome, such as a washed-out track in Utah and the brakes that failed on the train’s Pullman Palace car. That railcar could not be abandoned; Central Pacific crews added empty coaches to the train to supply added braking power in order to descend the steep grades in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were also sticky brakes, failed steam lines and overheated axles. Despite these difficulties, the train beat its estimated time of arrival by almost 12 hours.  

The railroad equipment of 1876 was not manufactured for sustained running at 50 to 60 miles per hour. Including all of its stops, the train needed to average over 41 miles per hour to reach its destination on time. 

There were five railroads involved in the cross-country trip. Four of them exchanged locomotives along their segments in order to avoid mechanical failure. However, the final 875 miles on Central Pacific track was pulled by a single locomotive (#149, known as the “Black Fox”). And one engineer was at the helm during that part of the run. The Black Fox was driven  from Ogden, Utah to Oakland by Henry S. Small, one of the railroad’s most experienced engineers. That section included the Great Salt Desert, the Humboldt Sink and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. For his devotion, Small was awarded a gold medal by the trip organizers and was “the Casey Jones of his day.” 

The Black Fox. (Image: John Ott/Pre1895 Railroads & Steam Engines Facebook page)
The Black Fox. (Image: John Ott/Pre1895 Railroads & Steam Engines Facebook page)

Publicity for the railroads and an acting troupe

Interestingly, the demonstration of speed and mechanical supremacy was not organized by the participating railroads.

The Lightning Express trip across the United States was done for publicity and showmanship. It was “arranged and paid for by Henry Jarrett, one of the principals of Jarrett & Palmer, the firm that managed the Booth Theater in New York City and produced theatrical performances all over the world.” 

Actor Lawrence Barrett on the cover of Harper's Weekly.
Actor Lawrence Barrett on the cover of Harper’s Weekly.

Jarrett convinced the participating railroads (the Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh, Fort Worth & Chicago, the Chicago & North Western, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific) to give the chartered train the extraordinary treatment needed to make the trip newsworthy. 

Of course executives of the railroads understood that the trip would also promote the speed and comfort of “modern” travel. (After the success of the Lightning Express, several railroads began “Lightning Train” services, although none were trans-continental.) 

During the spring of 1876, Jarrett & Palmer had produced Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Booth Theater, starring a noted actor of the time, Lawrence Barrett. When the very successful run at the Booth Theater was over, the play was scheduled to open with the same cast in San Francisco. Jarrett saw an opportunity for publicity that would sell theater seats. Using the tight schedule to get the production to San Francisco, Jarrett convinced the railroads to provide the facilities for this special journey. Jarrett emphasized that the play was going to close mere hours before its cast, sets and costumes needed to leave for San Francisco. The ensuing publicity meant that the remaining New York performances were sold out through closing night.

Jarrett paid a premium to the railroads for the trip. The actors rode in the comfort of a special Pullman Palace Hotel Car, were served fancy meals in the commissary car, and the costumes and sets were secured in the baggage car. Newspapers were invited to send reporters on the train for a modest amount. Reporters from the London Times and New York Herald rode with the actors for the entire trip, while reporters for other publications joined for different parts of the journey. 

Publicity about the transcontinental trip preceded its departure for weeks. Reports were published in the New York Herald and other papers on a regular basis. San Francisco’s Daily Alta California had almost daily stories about the trip’s preparations. And the majority of press reports mentioned the play. 

The anticipated speed of the train caused the United States Post Office to place mail bound for India and Southeast Asia aboard the train. The post office created a special postmark for the mail on the train – “Jarrett & Palmer Fast Trans-Continental Express.” The New York Times contracted to have the train deliver its newspaper to Chicago on the same day it was printed.  In regard to Jarrett & Palmer, all the publicity worked; tickets for performances of Henry V in San Francisco sold briskly. 

An article about the Lightning Express. (Photo:
An article about the Lightning Express. (Photo:

The news reports worked. Along the train’s route across the nation, people traveled to tracks along the route to see the Lightning Express pass. In towns the train passed through in the middle of the night, residents woke each other up and rang church bells. Fireworks and rockets were set off as the train raced by. Reporters on board dispatched stories to their newspapers from telegraph offices along the route. The train was met by a large crowd when it arrived in Oakland, even though it was hours early. There were genuine displays of national pride for this technological achievement. 

Of course, the speed of the trains crossing the continent also was of great interest to shippers, particularly of perishable goods.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.