‘Seeing America First’

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Once the paperwork had been processed, the money wired and the rail tickets purchased, Mariasia Naginsky and her five daughters would leave the relative comforts of their Seattle shelter home for the next-to-last leg of their journey — crossing the vast expanse of the American West. As in Russia, they would travel on relatively new transcontinental routes that passed through territory few people had seen.

The U.S. rail industry had expanded significantly in the early 20th century, attempting to capitalize on new opportunities in the West. There would never be more track mileage (approximately 254,000 miles in 1916) or passengers (1.2 million passengers in 1920) than during this time period, according to a railroad history timeline compiled by PBS.

Hampered by one of the most severe winters on record as the nation struggled to keep up with the demands of World War I, the federal government took over the rail industry effective Jan. 1, 1918, making economic growth and leisure travel secondary to support of the war effort. As described in “Trains Across the Continent: North American Railroad History” by Rudolph L. Daniels, the newly formed U.S. Railroad Administration created one company, American Railway Express, from the four major rail companies and immediately placed an order for 2,000 additional locomotives and 100,000 freight cars to address shortages. Despite a reduction in passenger service, the number of people traveling by train continued to grow by 8 percent in 1917 and 1918 — likely creating delays for available trains and perhaps even crowding on board. With fewer seats available on passenger trains, immigrants continuing on to other destinations probably had longer waits than the average of 10 days before the government takeover of the railroads. Interestingly, one of the most talked-about changes was the end of a la carte meals on dining cars. According to Daniels’ account: “[The U.S. government] determined that the customary large variety of dishes encouraged waste and were difficult to prepare. Passengers could choose from a few set menu ‘packages.'”

It was against this backdrop that Mariasia and her daughters would board a train bound for Chicago, probably in late February or March 1918. Because it was such a time of transition, it’s difficult to determine whether nationalization efforts already were under way or the private companies still were operating their normal routes. If both Seattle rail stations still were offering passenger service, the family would have left from either the King Street Station or the Oregon-Washington Station.

By 1918, the King Street Station already had become an iconic building on the Seattle skyline, with its tall clock tower facing the city. Built between 1904 and 1906, the station was designed by the architects of New York’s Grand Central Station, as described by HistoryLink.org, which also noted that the building’s style was sometimes referred to as “Railroad Italianate.” Departing from this station, the Naginskys would have been dropped off by a representative of the Seattle branch of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, likely in a motor car, at the grand entrance drive on King Street, which was covered by an extended projecting awning. Inside, they would have found ornate details such as coffered ceilings and even a ladies’ waiting area.

Those departing from the King Street Station would have been taking either the Great Northern Railroad or the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Traveling The Great Northern, the family would have witnessed “magnificent mountains, placid lakes and breathtaking glaciers,” as described in “The Great Northern Railway – A History” by Ralph W. Hidy et al. The railroad’s Oriental Limited train, which had the northernmost route of all carriers, would have taken them through central Washington, then swing toward the northernmost tip of Idaho and remain close to the Canadian border through Montana and North Dakota. Entering Minnesota, it would begin heading south, following the Mississippi River through LaCrosse, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa, before crossing northern Illinois.

Accommodations on board the Great Northern’s Oriental Limited — so named because of the connection it provided to and from the Far East — likely would have been superior to anything experienced by the family before. When operations began in 1893, the Oriental Limited’s cars were “new and among the best available,” according to Hidy’s account: “Diners were finished in polished oak, as were sleepers. The buffet-library observation car was adorned with rich carpets, wicker chairs, wrought-iron design work, and colorful curtains and ornate lamps — all in contemporary Victorian fashion.” As recounted by Hidy, the train was described in early advertising as “one of the greatest,” covering “the shortest, the easiest, the most interesting route across the Continent”:

… the track of the Great Northern is noted for its solidarity, long tangents, and easy curves; the rails are of the heaviest steel, the ballasting of rock; the train swings as smoothly over the Montana mountains as it does over the prairies of North Dakota; the jumps, jerks and bumps have all been worked out of the roadway — a spoonful of coffee always reaches the passenger’s mouth intact from his cup despite the fact that a 160-ton engine is whirling the train along at 40 miles an hour.

The Northern Pacific’s flagship train, the North Coast Limited, would follow a similar route to the south of the Oriental Limited. Picturesque mountains and rivers would continue for thousands of miles, with the No. 2 train, as the eastbound route was called, also making its way across the western states of Washington, Idaho and Montana, coming within 75 miles of Yellowstone National Park. Across the Badlands and Great Prairie of North Dakota, the train would travel past the lakes of Minnesota then take the same Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad line as the Great Northern into Chicago’s Northwestern Station. “Twenty-eight ranges of mountains, in all, comprise some of America’s grandest scenery,” read a late-1940s Northern Pacific brochure. “The Continental Divide, Hellgate Canyon, Clark’s Fork Canyon and the summit of the Cascade Range are among the spectacular sights which call forth special admiration.”

Like the Great Northern, Northern Pacific trains were built with passengers in mind. The company offered “daily through trains, electric lighted and elaborately equipped with every comfort,” read a 1909 ad promoting the new service that appeared in The Toledo Bee. “The trains are made up of modern, roomy Pullman sleeping cars, Tourist Sleeping Cars, Comfortable coaches, a Buffet Library observation car, and a Dining Car, a la carte, operated not for profit, but in such a way as to reflect high credit on the management for its perfect service and thoroughly good cuisine.”

By 1911, a second station was offering transcontinental rail service from Seattle to Chicago. Located right next to its rival King Street Station, the Oregon-Washington Station served as the terminus for both the Union Pacific, which built the station, and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. The station was a grand architectural structure built in the Beaux Arts style with classical details, according to HistoryLink.org. If the family left from here, they may have sat on tall oak benches in a central barrel-vaulted waiting space or in a separate ladies’ waiting area, surrounded by tiled floors and classical columns. A large, semi-circular window facing the tracks lit up the massive space. Designed to meet all passenger needs, the station had a small hospital on the concourse level as well as a restaurant and other amenities. It also had features that made operations more mechanized and efficient, reflecting the growing modernization of the railroad.

Union Pacific’s route was the southernmost of all the carriers, taking passengers through different areas of the country than its competitors. From Seattle, the train would head south on the Oregon and Washington line through Tacoma into Portland, Ore. From there, the line would head east, following the Columbia River along the Oregon-Washington border past Mt. Hood before angling southeast through Pendleton, Ore., and Boise, Idaho. Near Pocatello, Idaho, the train either continued on this path toward Granger, Wyo., or it headed due south past the Great Salt Lake to Ogden, Utah — both stops on the Union Pacific’s main line. The main line would cross southern Wyoming, passing Cheyenne; move directly through the nation’s bread basket, with stops in Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa; then head across Iowa and Illinois.

The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, more commonly known as The Milwaukee Road, would begin offering service to Chicago soon after the Oregon-Washington Station opened in 1911. Over 2,300 miles of track, The Milwaukee Road’s Columbian and Olympian lines would cross five major mountain ranges — the Saddles, Belts, Rockies, Cascades and Bitter Roots — and move through mostly sparsely populated areas in central Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa before crossing into Northern Illinois.

Regardless of the carrier, the duration of the trip seemed to be roughly the same. Multiple sources report the journey from Seattle to Chicago took between 70 and 72 hours. According to a schedule published in 1921 — a few years after the Naginskys’ trip — a North Coast Limited train would leave Seattle’s King Street Station at 9:15 a.m. Sunday and arrive at Chicago’s Northwestern Station by 11:15 a.m. Wednesday.

Government price controls and stiff competition, initially within the rail industry and later from other modes of transportation, kept rail ticket prices relatively low and falling as early as the last decade of the 19th century. As described in Hidy’s historical account, Great Northern touched off a price war in the 1890s that brought first-class fares from Seattle to St. Paul down from $60 to $35 and second-class fares from $35 to $25; shortly afterward, prices dropped again to $25 and $18, respectively. Second-class travel accounted for more than 80 percent of the railroads’ business, “which differed little … from first-class service,” reasoned Great Northern’s Hill, who saw opportunity in greater overall volume. By 1921, published fares for adults traveling from Seattle to Chicago were starting at $9.90 for a “Tourist Upper Berth,” not including an 8 percent war tax. Tickets for children under age 12 were half-price, while those for children under 4 were free. The actual fare paid by Mariasia in 1918 could have been even lower, as the railroads, led by Great Northern, offered special fares for immigrants and settlers.

Whether traveling the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Union Pacific or The Milwaukee Road, Mariasia and her children would experience many different geographic areas of the country they would soon call their own, living up to the Great Northern advertising slogan “See America First.” And yet for all the spectacular scenery along these routes, years later the oldest, Jhina, who was about 9 years old at the time, would have only one recollection — of “vast, open spaces.”