Four ceremonial spikes, two of them gold, dropped into a wooden tie in Promontory, Utah. Then a hammer struck an ordinary iron spike, setting off cannons in New York City and all the fire bells in San Francisco. Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and the spread of other rail lines around the United States, transformed the nation. Trains changed how and why we travel, what we buy, where we live—who, in fact, we are.
Rails linked the coasts, connecting states that had at times been united in name only. By 1870, a trip from Omaha, Neb., to Sacramento that once required several months in a covered wagon could be made behind a steam engine in just four days. Trains both transported fortunes and created them.When the train arrived, progress had pulled in.
Though cars and airplanes usurped the reign of trains, railways retain their hold on the imagination. Only a grouch has no affection for a train. Compelling rides still abound: passenger routes geared to long-distance commuting, tourist rails that travel through postcard landscapes, entertainment-focused excursions for which the destination is not the point. The trips that follow are a sample of that bounty, ranging from the country’s iconic rides to beloved local jaunts. Each shows a different side of train mystique—that allure in the soulful sound of a locomotive’s whistle or in the sight of an old engine, chest puffed, tossing steam over its shoulder as its conductor calls out, “All aboard!”
Reasons to choose this overnight train rather than a plane hop are as varied as its passengers. “No security lines!” an older gent declares as the train departs Los Angeles. A young mother nods, relieved that her kids can move around. In another car, a rail buff shares his enthusiasm with a commuter tired of traffic. The Coast Starlight lives up to both halves of its billing: You can gape at the Pacific or gaze at the night sky from the observation car. The ride provides hours of great sights, among them the horseshoe turn near San Luis Obispo, California, during which the engine looks down upon the last car, and a Cascade Range stretch where you pass a waterfall unreachable by auto. But what lingers most is a sense of relaxation. It’s dark when you arrive in Oakland, onetime terminus of the transcontinental railroad. You pull down your bunk and let the rhythm of the rails rock you to sleep. In the morning, you’ll awake to the green of Oregon.
Salt Lake City, Utah–Emeryville, California
Along the Great Salt Lake, the tracks parallel I-80, an asphalt alternative that hardly rivals the pleasures of the rail. Among the upsides of not driving: comfy sleeping cars and a Sightseer Lounge with picture windows. Rest up at night, because the Zephyr rumbles through the finest scenery by day, including the Humboldt River Valley in Nevada and the pine-mantled Sierra. On its curling path over the Donner Pass, the diesel engine seems to slow, as if in deference to that doomed long-ago party. An auto could get you up and over faster. But the magic of this 17-hour overnight journey is that it leads you through the past even as it propels you forward.
Portland, Oregon–West Glacier, Montana
To ride this overnight passenger train, which takes 141/2 hours in one direction as it follows major portions of the Lewis and Clark trail, is to experience the railroad as a form of time travel. The list of landmarks it passes reads like excerpts from the famed explorers’ log. About 60 miles east of Portland rises Beacon Rock, an oversize outcrop in the Columbia River Gorge that Lewis and Clark christened in the early 1800s. Farther on is Wishram, Wash., where the pair gaped at abundant salmon fishing grounds and helped arrange a trade parley between the Wishram and Nez Perce Indians. Much of the landscape consists of untamed plains, as it did when railroad tycoon James J. Hill, the “empire builder,” ran the operation. The ride builds in drama as you move east. The Sightseer Lounge is an ideal viewing platform for Montana’s sapphire lakes and craggy mountains. Poor Lewis and Clark missed them: Their party split and went its separate ways 120 miles short of this magical backdrop, which today’s travelers know as Glacier National Park.