Emigrant Cars 鐵路移出車

Winston Ho 何嶸.  
University of New Orleans,
Department of History 紐奧良大學歷史學系.

NolaChinese on FacebookYoutube, and Instagram.

2020 Feb. 7, Friday.


Emigrant Car (Zogbaum, Rufus F., 1886 Nov. 13 ) - Harper's Weekly (p. 728)[Emigrant Car.  Illustration by Rufus F. Zogbaum, Harper’s Weekly (1886 Nov. 13):  p. 728.]

Today, when we think of long distance railroad travel in the late 1800s and early twentieth-century, we tend to think of Pullman cars with private cabins, full service fine dining, and spacious lounge cars complete with a drink and snack bar.  This is what we see in movies, and the railroad companies themselves once promoted this image of luxury.

But at the turn-of-the-century, when great numbers of immigrants from Europe and Asia flooded into North America, the primary means of long-distance travel for immigrants was in emigrant cars 鐵路移出車 (also known as colonist cars in Canada).  Emigrant cars were the cheapest form of long-distance travel offered by the railroad companies – even cheaper than traveling coach – and it was the railroad equivalent of steerage aboard passenger ships.

Immigrants would endure weeks of travel by ship, then wait to be processed at an immigration station, such as Ellis Island 埃利斯島 in the east or Angel Island 天使島 in the west.   They would then buy tickets at a train station and board an emigrant car to destinations throughout North America.  The earliest emigrant cars were little more than boxcars or freight cars with benches.  They were characterized by their spartan interior, including small un-padded seats on a constantly jostling train.  Conditions improved slightly in the 1880s, when railroad companies began competing for immigrant passengers, designing more comfortable emigrant sleeper cars, with amenities like toilets, heating, and folding seats and berths above for sleeping.

Canadian Pacific Railway - Colonist Cars (c. 1880s -1940)[Colonist Cars on the Canadian Pacific Railway, c. 1880s-1940.  Farr, Moir, and Mealing, Two Democracies (Toronto:  Ryerson Press, 1963).]

Emigrant cars were dirty and crowded, often filled with entire families and all their belongings, with no privacy of any kind.  There was little space to stand let alone walk to the washroom – assuming the car had one.  The passengers were poor.  Many had only recently arrived in North America from villages overseas.  Occasionally, they boarded the emigrant cars with farm animals.  The trains would stop overnight to allow passengers to rest at emigrant hotels.  Emigrant car passengers could travel this way for days from one side of the continent to the other.

By the twentieth-century, the emigrant car had evolved into the economical tourist car 鐵路旅游車, featuring amenities like padded seats and larger windows, though still crowded and uncomfortable compared to coach cars.  Tourist cars transported desperate families in search of jobs during the Great Depression, and soldiers to and from ports of embarkation during Second World War.  Tourist cars were finally retired after the war.

Unfortunately, very little has been written about emigrant cars, though much of the country was settled by passengers who traveled on them.  Emigrant cars were often described in the newspapers of the time, and there are illustrations, photographs, and even original blueprints.

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History MuseumCentral Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

[Designs for Union Pacific Emigrant Cars.  By Lewis Metzler Clement.  Circa 1880s-1900s.]

The best account of what it was like to travel by emigrant car was written by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson 史蒂文森 (1850 → 1894).  Stevenson would later become famous for writing the pirate novel Treasure Island 《金銀島》, and the Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 《變身怪醫》.  But in 1879, Stevenson had fallen in love with an older woman and married mother of two named Fanny Van de Grift (1840 → 1914).  Van de Grift had been living in France, where she met Stevenson, but she had since returned home to San Francisco.   She sent a letter to Stevenson shortly after she separated from her unfaithful husband, and against the wishes of family and friends, Stevenson traveled from Glasgow to California to join her.

To save money, Stevenson traveled second-class by ship to New York and by emigrant car to San Francisco.  According to Stevenson, his train had three emigrant cars.  One of the three was reserved for the Chinese, as the Chinese were segregated from the other passengers.  Most of the railroad line, from Utah to California, had been built by the Chinese, and now, they were one of the largest group of passengers aboard Stevenson’s train, as they traveled west from New York to California.  By the way, Stevenson and Van de Grift were married after her divorce was finalized.


Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum[Design for Union Pacific Emigrant Cars.  By Lewis Metzler Clement.  Circa 1880s-1900s.]


NolaChinese:  Emigrant Cars (https://nolachinese.wordpress.com/).

White, John H.  “Emigrant Cars.”  The American Railroad Passenger Car, Part 2, p. 466-472.  Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985.  Accessed from Google Books (https://books.google.com/books?id=bz0OBGxRjjcC&pg=PA466#v=onepage&q&f=false).

Zogbaum, Rufus F.  “On the Modern ‘Ship of the Plains.'”  Harper’s Weekly (1886 Nov. 13):  p. 728, 731-732.  Accessed from HathiTrust (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015006956802&view=1up&seq=569&size=125).

Stevenson, Robert Louis.  “Traveling on an Emigrant Train, 1879.”  Excerpts from The Amateur Emigrant, originally published in 1895.  Accessed from the Eyewitness To History website (http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/emigranttrain.htm).

Stevenson, Robert Louis.  “The Despised Races.”  The Amateur Emigrant, p. 139-143. Originally published in 1895.  Accessed from the Internet Archive (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044018049593&view=1up&seq=159).

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