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Westward Bound — A Soldier’s Story

On the first night of their journey, the Hiles get situated, meet a stranger, and begin to appreciate the scenery in all its magnificence.

Since the 1970s, virtually all medium to long distance passenger rail service in the United States is handled by the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, a quasi-public corporation commonly known as Amtrak. That was not the case in 1919. In those days, passenger service was handled by the private entities that also operated freight trains, and for the Hiles to travel from Hannibal to California would require the services of several different railway vendors.

Hannibal, Missouri is located just across the Mississippi River from Quincy, Illinois, and when the Hiles got on that first train for the first leg of their journey to Denver, Colorado, it would have been on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy — the CB&Q, aka The Burlington — the oldest and largest of the western lines, whose slogan Everywhere West was pretty much true. Once they got to Denver they would switch to the Denver & Rio Grande that would take them to Salt Lake City, Utah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The train was so crowded when they embarked that evening that the Hiles had to take seats in the smoking car, but after a few hours they were able to acquire good seats in coach on their way to Denver.

We had a good night’s rest, this first night of travel and Wed. A.M. found us way out in Nebraska. At McCook [in the southwestern part of the state], we changed time (setting back the wheels of time one hour). When we got into Colorado we could see that we were elevating all the time. We saw so many sand ridges (not sand wiches) and sage brush. Toward evening we got our first view of the mountains arriving in Denver. They looked like fluffy clouds in the distance at first, but soon stood out plainly, in bold relief against the sky as mountains in all their snow-capped magnificence.

Ella Hile Diary, 2-4

For Ella, as well as for all of the Hiles on the journey, mountains took on a special significance for her, and she will write of their splendor many times in her diary. Having been born on the plains of Illinois and having lived in Hannibal (where each of the other five members of her family had been born and raised), there hadn’t been much of an opportunity for any of them to actually see mountains up close.

We were getting all excited by this time and we kept craning our necks so as to miss nothing and along about six o’clock we puffed into Denver.

Ella Hile Diary, 3-4

There was one other notable event which took place that first night:

There was a soldier on the train who thought he had lost his suitcase on another train and we became interested in watching him. He had been partaking too freely of Mr. John Barleycorn and he became confused and forgetful in consequence. His suitcase was finally found. He was going to Denver and next day he was sobered and was a jolly fellow traveller.

Ella Hile Diary, 2

The photo of Oscar and the soldier was taken (presumably by Ella) at the McCook, Nebraska train station and it would not be the only encounter the Hiles met from soldiers during their journey. World War I had a major impact on passenger rail service in the United States. On the one hand, rail traffic increased dramatically during the war years through the movement of soldiers to the east coast for eventual deployment overseas, as well as materials and munitions. Following the war, the railroads attempted to entice passenger traffic with significant improvements in comfort and accommodations as they also sought to meet the competitive challenge of the automobile.

Arriving in Denver, the travelers were soon met with some challenges of their own. See you tomorrow!

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