How would a family travel 950 miles across the country in 1912?
I recently discovered that my Man from the Suitcase, John Paul Jones, was born in Cedar Springs, Michigan in 1912. That’s not the interesting part, although I’m fairly sure it was interesting to him.
The bit that’s interesting is that Cedar Springs is 950+ miles away from where his family lived in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Short of convincing my Michigander friends to go to a Kent County library for me, I have hit a brick wall in finding a birth record for JPJ in Cedar Springs, MI. To request a birth record from Kent Country, you must be related to the person on the certificate and while it would be an incredible twist of fate to find out JPJ and I are related…I’m not counting on it.
The only record I have that JPJ was born in Cedar Springs, Michigan is, weirdly, a register of births from Lowell, Mass.
JPJ is one of three names on this record which are listed as being born outside the city of Lowell. George F. O’Dwyer was born in Boston (30 miles away) and Charles Coburn was born in Salem (33 miles away).
After an indirect ‘lightbulb’ moment c/o my mum and bit of digging (all of which can be found in detail in the previous blog post) I discovered that JPJ’s maternal grandparents lived in Allegan, Michigan. Allegan is only 60 miles away from Cedar Springs. My hunch is that the Jones family were visiting relatives, and they either planned for John to be born there or he came a wee bit earlier than expected.
There could be many other explanations for being so far away from home, including a fun idea I bandied about involving the Official Red Flannel Festival, but I felt the family connection made the most sense. I was sad to find out that the Red Flannel Festival didn’t start until 1939, but it’s still going strong which should be enough of a reason to visit Cedar Springs all by itself.
I ask you…could you resist all this fun? I think not.
The First Red Flannel Festival was held in November of 1939. Featured crowning of a Queen by the local congressman at half time of the high school football game, a parade down Main Street, a lumber jack supper, numerous arrests by the Key Stone Cops of anyone failing to wear something red, and induction of local dignitaries into the Order of the Knights of the Red Flannel Drawers (the password was “itch.”).
-Sue Harrison and Donna Dejong, authors of “The Cedar Springs Story”.
Which leads us to the main subject of this post: How would a family travel 950+ miles across the country in 1912? While I don’t have direct evidence that supports the following theories, I’m confident I got the majority of it correct. This isn’t an exact exercise, rather it’s an experiment. I wanted to go back 102 years and put myself in their shoes.
Transportation in America in 1912 consisted of 5 choices: your own two feet, a bicycle, horse and buggy, motorcar and train. I hope you will permit me the assumption that rules out the first 2 options. If John’s father had suggested Vesta cycle over 900 miles while pregnant, I’m sure I would have found a death record for John Kelty Jones, circa 1912. As it happens, JKJ died in 1943 and is laid to rest in Lancaster, Mass…not in a shallow grave, fertilizing the Grand Prize winning tomatoes at the Middlesex County Fair.
Horse and buggy transportation, while still a common method around town, wouldn’t cut it for 950 miles.
The state of the roads in 1912 was just “emerging from the dark ages”, according to Richard F. Weingroff, of the Office of Infrastructure at the Federal Highway Administration.
Roads were primarily of local interest. Outside cities, “market roads” were maintained, for better or worse, by counties or townships. The country had approximately 2,199,600 miles of rural roads and only 190,476 miles (8.66 percent of the total) had improved surfaces of gravel, stone, sand-clay, brick, shells, oiled earth, bituminous or, as a U.S. Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) bulletin put it, “etc.”
–The Lincoln Highway, R. Weingroff
Side note – I have an enormous soft-spot in my heart for people who have passionate interests the majority of the global population would consider dull. As a child, I was a fossil collector, a bird watcher, and a philatelist, so I’m pre-disposed to adore people who grok “dweeby” subjects. In my opinion, a fervent commitment to what is normally considered tedious and mundane is a thing of beauty. As the “unofficial historian” of the FHWA, Mr. Weingroff is one such person. In my research for this post, I came across one of his articles titled: The Rambler’s Highway History IQ Test: The Seven Questions That Could Change Your Life – Or Not! Can You Make the Grade?
This simple test promises to “challenge readers’ Highway History IQ”. It has seven questions. It’s 27 pages long. I totally failed it.
In addition to the fact that in 1912 only 8.7% of roads in the United States were “paved” with little more than packed dirt, ownership of an automobile was reserved for the higher classes. A 1912 Model-T Ford, the most popular car of the day, was priced at $560.00. We know from the 1930’s census that the Jones family paid $25 a month in rent for their house in Cayuga Co., New York. Adjusting only slightly for inflation, the cost of a Model-T would be about 2 years worth of rent for the family.
Even if we assume that the Jones family had the funds to purchase a car, the AACA (Antique Automobile Car Association) reports that the 1912 auto industry produced 356,000 cars. The population in 1912 was ~95,335,000 people. That’s 0.37% of the population that owned an automobile. I don’t like them odds.
That leaves the Jones family one solid choice to travel the ~2000 miles to Cedar Springs, Michigan and back to Lowell Massachusetts: Riding the rails.
The rail network in 1912 was extensive and was used by all classes of travelers. The Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the largest rail companies in Canada and the North East, boasted 15.5 million passengers in 1911. The cost of a railway ticket for several long journeys per year was considerably cheaper than an automobile.
There were hundreds of independent railroads in operation which allowed travelers to cobble together a journey to almost anywhere, transferring from one operator’s lines to another. The most efficient choice, especially when you are caring for a two-year-old and a newborn, would be one of the through car services that ran direct routes between the major urban hubs.
The Grand Trunk Railway, with over 1500 miles of rail under one management, boasted express trains with new Pullman’s “Palace” and sleeping cars. GTR offered a two through car services from Chicago to Boston, leaving daily.
The Joneses would have boarded the train at Battle Creek, 176 miles into the journey.
The timetable detail is taken from the most definitive source available for the 1910’s: The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Porto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Cuba, 42nd Year (January 1910)
The 1910 Official Guide made my eyes hurt. There are 1,486 pages listing the routes and timetables of every rail company in the country. In order to pack in a gargantuan amount of information, the publishers had to get creative with space.
Thankfully, the New York Public Library has a digitized copy with a handy search feature, so my eyes were spared the entire volume. I printed the pages I needed and sat down with a magnifying glass to piece together the journey the Jones family most likely would have taken.
The main line from Chicago to Boston ran via Toronto and Montreal. The Joneses would likely board the train at Battle Creek, Michigan and ride in the same cars all the way to Montreal. From Montreal to Lowell, they would switch to two subsidiary lines, the first operated by Central Vermont and the last by the Boston & Maine system, which would take them all the way to Lowell, Mass.
The journey home would take 31 hours and 12 minutes. With a two year old. And a newborn.
Of the two trains available, I decided to trace the Montreal Express (No. 14) which would stop at Battle Creek at 8:45pm, as opposed to the Atlantic Express which would have required the Joneses board the train at 3:50am. I know the exact times for each stop because the 1910 Official Guide took great care to list each stop on the route, the arrival and departure time and the exact mileage into the journey.
A dining car was available from Chicago to Durand, Michigan, leaving the Joneses almost 2 hours to eat, if they hadn’t eaten before they left their family. The next opportunity would be in a “Parlour Library Cafe Car” between Toronto and Montreal, 10 hours and 25 minutes later, just in time for breakfast at 9am.
While the journey from Allegan, Michigan back to Lowell, Massachusetts was lengthy, the standard passenger rail cars of the 1910’s weren’t anything to sniff at…and you don’t have to take my word for it. Let’s take the word of one of my fellow dweebs, a man who traveled annually more than 75,000 rail miles “just for the fun of it” and calculated that over the years he had ridden more than 1.5 million miles on rails.
Edward Hungerford (1875- July 29, 1948) was an American journalist and author of the book The Modern Railroad. As self-admitted rail-head, he didn’t hesitate to wax-poetic about the iron alleys.
The railroad is a monster. His feet are dipped into the navigable seas, and his many arms reach into the up-lands.
His arms stretch through the towns and over the land. His steel muscles reach across great rivers and deep valleys, his tireless hands have long since burrowed their way through God’s eternal hills.
The railroad bids death and stagnation begone. It creates. It reaches forth with it’s life and life is born.
The railroad is life itself!
-The Modern Railroad (1911)
I think that R. F. Weingroff and E. Hungerford, had they ever met, would have been best friends forever.
Hungerford’s detailed book is available to read online via Hathitrust.org, an incredible partnership of academic & research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world. The Modern Railroad taught me about the state of train travel in the early 20th century, specifically, the conditions that the ‘common traveler’, such as the Jones family, would have experienced as they rode the rails to and from Michigan. As someone who has taken several long-distance night trains on various continents, all I can say is those were the days.
In 2014, My Gentleman Caller and I took a break from reality and spent 12 months traveling around the world. If you are interested, we blogged about it at 365 on the Road. Being a data nerd like myself, MGC kept a log of all of the various conveyances we took. Within 12 months, we took 47 long-distance train rides and 123 short journeys. That works out to be about three trips a week, one of them being a 4+ hour ride, for a little over a year. There were three memorable night train experiences, including one where we were nearly given the boot at the Polish border at 3am.
Over the last century, the acceptable level of comfort and convenience in our everyday life has sky-rocketed. Our chairs are squooshier, we no longer wear corsets (mostly) and our cars have personalized seat-specific climate controls. We have our own personal sleep number and our precious heads are cradled by pillows made of space-foam. However, the passenger rail experience over the last 102 years has significantly decreased in comfort.
In 1912, sleeper cars for the general public were of the seats-by-day, beds-by-night style. Unless you had a personal berth, your seats were laid flat at the collective bedtime. Would the Jones family have paid for a private berth? Their daughter, Marjorie, was two when her brother was born. The security of knowing your two-year-old and your newborn baby wouldn’t fuss and disturb a full car of passengers may have been worth the price of a private berth. However, we can’t assume that they had the funds to upgrade.
Another option on certain trains, including the GTR route from Chicago to Boston, included “tourists” sleeping cars. These were older wooden cars that were downgraded when Pullman introduced steel cars for the first class passengers. The tourist sleepers generally had rattan seats as opposed to the plush of the steel sleepers and were half the cost of the first class accommodation. For your ticket price, you got a section space. Initially you brought your own bedding, but eventually, bedding became included in the price of the ticket. A number of tourist sleepers had small basic kitchens on one end of the car for passengers to prepare their own meals.
Electricity was standard even upon “unpretentious trains” and passengers did not have to “wrestle with difficulties of dressing or undressing in an absolutely dark berth.”
In 2014, we took a night train from Prague to Krakow. I had the fortune of sharing this tiny berth with 5 other strangers for 13 hours. The bunks stayed bunks, stacked three on each wall, mounted at 2ft intervals.
Getting ready for bed on the Czech night train was difficult. As difficult as solving a Rubik’s cube in a tumble dryer. The tiny amount of free space meant each new move required careful planning. It was the classic conundrum of trying to get your fox, your chicken, and your sack of corn across the river, but with the helpful addition of polyester curtains that slapped the crap out of you as they were sucked in and out of the open window. You may also have noticed the lack of overhead lighting. There was a bare bulb that flickered until we unscrewed it before attempting to sleep.
The communal sleeping cars in Thailand offered little privacy and an even smaller amount of space.
When we had a long train journey ahead of us, we plundered the station’s snack shop. Armed with Pringles, Oreos, and apples, we rationed our overpriced snacks over the hours. Sometimes, a snack-seller was aboard the train selling thimble-sized cups of coffee for an outrageous price. We would watch them pass, licking up the crumbs that remained from our sizable pile of wrappers.
In 1912, Pullman cars on the faster trains typically offered the table d’hote dinner – the dollar dinner, however, the slower trains stopped for meals at important stations. Hungerford opines that on the latter, the passengers piled “out of the cars and went across to some lunch-counter or dining room to ruin their digestion in the twenty minutes allowed for each meal.” During serving hours, dining cars had to move through several full meal services in order to remain profitable. Hungerford suggests that the wise man on a popular train must “sacrifice his dignity” and hurry toward the dining-car at “the first intimation that the meal is ready”.
If you wanted to keep your dignity intact, you could visit the cafe car where two cooks and two waiters served smaller meals at a fixed low price. Another option was the buffet sleepers or buffet parlor cars which were retrofitted to have a very small kitchen where “a single accomplished negro may act as both cook and waiter”.
If we found ourselves on a train with food service, the ‘meal’ was served airline style. Small, pre-packaged bowls of steamed mystery food.
On the long-distance trains in the early 20th century, the food served in the dining cars and cafe cars were locally sourced. As the train passed through various reasons, the train would stop at major terminals and load up on fresh supplies of meats and vegetables. The dining car staff looked at the route and planned accordingly. The menu in the dining car would vary, depending on the fresh supplies they could pick up along the way. Instead of building their shopping list from a handful of cookery books like the majority of us, the dining car department looked at a map. It was a remarkable operation, recognized by Hungerford in this passage: “This town has an especial reputation for its chickens; this for its grapes; this other for its celery. The dining car department knows all these, and it selects under the rare opportunity of a housewife who has a market nearly a thousand miles long within which to do her marketing.”.
I do not believe that the food we ate was locally-sourced. Most of the dining car horrors we coughed down (and occasionally back up) occurred in Thailand, a country that has the freshest, most delicious food in the world. The fish in the above picture looked like the leftovers you would use to chum the water and was presented scales and all.
Other services the Jones family may have enjoyed included barber-shops, stenographers, and observation rooms for the women positioned far away from the smokey clubhouses at the front of the trains for the men-folk. Ladies maids were installed and on-board nail manicures were in vogue.
Services aboard our trains included a mesh shelf and a rousing game of “You May Have the Top Bunk if You Can Figure Out How to Get Up There”
I should be thankful I didn’t have a small bundle of joy and a toddler to keep up with.
I have the pleasure of knowing a 3-year old, and while I love her dearly, I couldn’t imagine being trapped with her for 31 hours in a box on wheels (before you call social services, she’s not mine). Add a newborn baby into the mix, and that sounds like a stressful day and a half.
An article in the Los Angeles Herald, published in 1910, had some words of advice for families traveling with young children on the train. You can read the full article here, but here are some of my favorite passages. If only it was as simple as they suggest.
On the dangers of cinders:
If the weather is not too warm, it is a good plan to have a child wear his bonnet when he lies down. This will keep cinders from his ears and will help deaden the noise of the train.
A small pillow to put under his head, a light wrap to throw over him when he is asleep, a piece of veiling to keep the cinders from his eyes when he has his nap and a securely corked bottle of boiled water should all find a place in the basket.
On feeding your newborn:
Beware of warming too much of the baby’s food at one time. Many a mother has made trouble for herself, distress for her baby, and annoyance for other passengers by keeping bottles warm for such a long time that the milk soured as soon as it entered the child’s stomach. Only one bottle should be warmed at a time; the rest kept in a pail of cracked ice. An alcohol lamp, such as is used for heating curling irons, will warm a cupful of milk in a short time. Or, if you prefer, heat a little water in a cup and set the bottle in that until the milk is the right temperature.
On amusing your older children:
All children like to cut out pictures, and these, with a pair of blunt scissors for each child, will furnish entertainment for a long time. Advertising sections of old magazines will furnish lots of pictures to be cut out and are easy to get.
Finally, on sanitation:
Above all things, avoid the public drinking cup. Before a child leaves home, whether for a journey or for only a series of calls to be made with his mother, have him take a drink of water. But there is always something very alluring about the cooler on the train and every child wants to make frequent use of it. The ice water contained therein should be avoided if the weather is warm, and the drinking cup attached to the receptacle should never be allowed to touch a child’s or adult’s lips. A cornucopia made of a sheet of writing paper will not only be more sanitary and safe to use, but will prove a fun making novelty to the little people.
Sounds like a hell of a good time, doesn’t it?
Do I have evidence that tells me why the Joneses were in Michigan for John’s birth? No.
Do I know they took the Grand Trunk Railroad from Battle Creek, MI to Lowell, MA? No.
I do know that they had to make the journey somehow, and based on the alternatives, I’m confident that they look a train.
It’s been a month since I started tracking down John and his family, and after four weeks of genealogical research, it was rewarding to step away and learn about a little slice of life in the early 20th century.
I feel closer to them. I hope you do too.
I’ve tracked down the location of John Paul Jones’s grave and I will be visiting it tomorrow. It seems fitting, after spending so much time this week thinking about his early days, to reflect on his last.
Coming up next: John’s life in Nashville!
Hungerford, Edward, 1875-1948. The Modern Railroad. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & co., 1912. – full electronic copy available at Haithitrust.org
Tips for Train Travel with Children – via clickamericana.com