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A First Person Account by Walter Scott Fitz of his Remarkable 36-Day Transcontinental Rail Journey from Boston to San Francisco including a Three Week, Snowbound Passage Between Cheyenne & Bitter Creek in Wyoming via the UPRR.
Jan. 14 to Feb. 19, 1872

                                                    Occidental Hotel [San Francisco]
February 28th, 1872

Dear Mother,

[Union Pacific Railroad]

My last [letter] was to Heber from Bitter Creek [WY]. From that place we had no detention, and I will now give you a few particulars of my journey.

"A Snow Drift on the Pacific Railroad." Hand colored wood block engraving from Harper's Weekly, March 19, 1870, p. 189. We arrived at Cheyenne January 20th [Saturday], 7:30 PM, waiting there until Thursday [January 25] noon for orders to come from Omaha. At 9 AM Mr. Clark, Superintendent of the road [Mr. S.H.H. Clark was General Manager, and later President, of the UPRR], arrived with a passenger and work train. After one hour detention he started on and telegraphed from next station, Hazard – nine miles off from our train, to leave. Four passenger trains got off together at 8 PM; reached Granite Cañon stopping there all night.

(Friday, January 26th) – Daylight Friday.  Off again reaching Buford at noon. 6 miles. Shortly after leaving, came up to an engine off the track – two hours detention before she was replaced. Then proceeded within two miles of Sherman. Stopped for the night as men were too much exhausted and weather bitterly cold. At sundown a terrible gale commenced. Myself and two others of our party walked into Sherman to get supper, found the drifts very numerous and solid as ice – one hour going the distance. Got a nice meal consisting of beefsteak and black-tailed deer and coffee, cakes, glass of lager beer, and, after smoking a cigar and getting started on our return at half past seven, thirty five minutes to [the] train which had moved up a short distance.

(Saturday, January 27th) – Next morning gale continued – men not able to work. The RR Co. distributes some edibles consisting of some crackers, cheese, smoked beef and halibut. In walking the night before, froze one of my ears – today somewhat swollen and painful.

(Sunday, January 28th) – Next day still blowing though more moderate, men working. At 4 pm road reported clear. We got to Sherman at 5 o'clock - remained there all night, finding a good supper at “Uncle Johns Hotel”.

Wyoming Map
Timeline of the crossing of Wyoming – January 20th to February 16th, 1872.
(Click on the map to see at full size.)

(Monday, January 29th) – Got a good breakfast and started at noon. Went along fifteen miles to Red Butte reaching there at 8 o'clock. From there, many drifts made slow progress. At nine o'clock a report reached our car that there had been an accident to the rear section of the train. We now numbered nine sections. Several of us walked back to investigate, found that a train of three engines had run into the end of a passenger train, throwing off the track two Emigrants' cars full of people, smashing the cars to pieces wounding more or less of the occupants. One man so badly hurt as to cause his death. The shock of the collision was so severe as to seriously damage the other three cars of the train. The next train in advance was driven into the preceding train so forcibly that the engine penetrated a sleeping car of next train so firmly as to make a complete jam requiring a considerable power to separate. Emigrants were all distributed through the first class coaches of other trains greatly to the disgust of passengers. 11:00 pm - reached Laramie 50 miles from Cheyenne.

(Tuesday, January 30th) – up early and out for a walk, found three Eastern bound trains waiting our arrival. Met [Mr.] King of our house [the trading house of Russell & Co. in Shanghai] homeward bound with the body of his wife. He appeared in better spirits than expected, thus proving that all grief can be cured by time and change of scene. The RR Co. having offered all passengers breakfast free of charge, we went to the office for meal tickets and from thence into the dining room. Waited one hour before being served, then got some cold, tough steak, ham and heavy biscuit – gobbled them up as soon as possible and as a natural consequence suffered fearfully from indigestion. At one pm started and ran very well to Lookout - there all night. The next three days being stormy – progress slow.

(Wednesday, January 31th) – noon - started and found heavy drifts and were obliged to dig our way almost foot by foot.

(Thursday, February 1) – still shoveling.

(Friday, February 2) – the same.

(Saturday, February 3) – more of it but fine weather and greater progress, arriving at Miser by night. Distance from Lookout, eight miles – time four days. Truly rapid traveling for a first class RRoad. After staying one hour for coal and water we ran onto the next station without difficulty - Rock Creek. Changed engines here and started at eleven PM. Went along beautifully four miles and just as we had began to think the delay was over our train stuck fast in the drift. Passengers got out offering to shovel but our conductor refused to accept the assistance as he was tired and wanted to sleep. General indignation among us all as the first section had gone on with snow train.

(Sunday, February 4th) – blowing heavily and fearfully cold. Men refused to work so no progress. A work train came up behind us but no one would venture out; a committee of passengers went through the train asking for volunteers and we turned out 60 good men who shoveled bravely and by night we got through to the next station.

(Monday, February 5th) – passengers turned out again and we got along better as the weather was milder. Saturday night the passengers [had] held an indignation meeting passing severe resolution condemnatory of the rail road people & sending a telegram to the supt. asking more aid and provisions. This brought back the work train which had gone on and left us, so that our force now comprised about 150 men. Ran from Como to Carbon 28 miles, arrived there at noon. Sent out a foraging party and got a good supply of bread, venison, tea sugar, plates, bowls and a few other requisites for our mess. Started at 5 pm advanced slowly for two hours when wind commenced blowing and we were obliged to stop.

(Tuesday, February 6th) – gale continued, no work done.

(Wednesday, Feb. 7th) – 12th anniversary of my first departure for China. A fearful day and everybody collected close to stove. At 10 pm the car in advance was discovered on fire. Considerable excitement & alarm amongst those who had not gone to bed. Fortunately it was soon got under control without much damage being done. A case of small pox reported on next train behind us as well as another fire. Everybody on qui vive and anxious fearing the disaster would spread.

(Thursday, February 8th) – Strong wind but no snow falling, everybody at work.

(Friday, February 9th) – reached Rawlins. At 5 AM this morning the engine of the train behind whistled “down brakes.” When our brake man jumped out and put on brakes to our train reducing the speed and the other train ran into our car giving us a severe push, breaking the brake bars and other slight damage. TimetableAll were in a sound sleep and you can imagine the fright to be thus suddenly aroused. There was loud screaming from the ladies, and for a few moments we had a fair idea of what bedlam must be. Finding no limbs were broken or serious damage done, everybody quieted down and after a few choice curses from conductors, passengers, & others we proceeded. By the time it was moving full speed we found our (car) was jumping about more than usual, and after a minute of uncertainty, we concluded she was off the track. One of us pulled the bell rope frantically but without being able to stop the train. Then we sent forward the porter to call the conductor who came in time and managed, after a few seconds, to swing his lantern so as to attract attention of the engineer and we finally stopped. Upon examination the last trucks of the car were found to be off the rails and we had been running for 2 miles in this condition. Everybody felt thankful for the narrow escape, which was certainly a most direct interposition of Providence.

Upon investigating into the non-response of pulling the bell rope we found [it] to be because the rope attached to the water tank of a disabled engine and no connection whatever with the bell. There were two engines on our train, one of which had broken down. At this station [Rawlings] we obtained fresh supplies of stores at our personal expense, and, after changing engines, left at 11 o'clock. Half an hour run carried us to a snow bank. We learned of a severe snow storm west of this and that the road is badly blocked. Orders came for a snow plow to be sent out ahead of us but this is impossible because the only plow was, a few days since, taken to pieces to be experimented upon by the master mechanics of the road. Another instance of the carelessness and want of system. Severe gale all this afternoon.

(Saturday, February 10th) – Mild weather enabling the men to work. Towards noon wind increased slightly which they thought a good and sufficient excuse to stop. Our last loaf of bread – private stock – is gone and the RR Co gave us four loaves. Towards night more moderate and we reached Separation at 1 am.

(Sunday, February 11th) – Still at S. [Separation]. Blowing heavily.Morning passed in coaling and taking in water. By noon advanced no yards. Another distribution of 4 loaves. Passengers all at work; 2 hours was as much as I could endure. We got 3 cans of peaches as our extra tidbit – a sort of plum duff. Last night a little girl of 5 years died on train behind. Complaint – lung fever; body had been put into a wooden box to be carried on. We hear a great deal of sickness such as fever, grippe, etc.

(Monday, February 12th) – 5 miles progress last night. Today comes in fine. At 10 AM the usual gale commenced. It is so fearful as to prevent any work from being done. Snowed more today.

(Tuesday, February 13th) – At 9 AM four of us start out for a walk to the front. Men just commencing work. We decided to go to the next station [Creston], 11 miles off. Met 5 laborers walking toward our train. They gave doleful accounts of the road as well as of bad treatment by the RR headmen. Inquiring about wages for snow shovellers they said $2.50 per diem each man, less $1 for board giving $1.50 net. Altogether too small pay to produce much zeal on a cold day. Double this would prove the best economy and men would have pluck to accomplish twice the labor.

We reached Creston at 1 1/2 o'clock and upon inquiring about dinner were informed there was no provision in the place. Sad for us being in a ravenous state and ready to devour almost anything. There was however a supply of flour and the good woman in charge of the station house offered to bake some biscuit for us. After an hour we were invited to sit down to a meal of hot bread and tea to which we did ample justice. We then asked the old lady to give us all the bread she could spare and add a few bags of sugar if possible. She responded nobly to the call and we packed into the bags 3 dozen biscuits and 7 pounds of sugar which we carried alternately to the train. One of our party concluded he would not return but proceed on 12 miles further where the road was open and take a chance of finding a train going to Ogden. We got back at 6 3/4 o'clock and found that the train had advanced 3 miles, thus making a walk of 19 miles. All were better for it but a little lame. Our average speed was 3 1/3 miles per hour considered very good in this high altitude 7100 feet above sea level. We found many drifts, ranging from 2 to 8 feet deep, hard as ice. Heavy work before trains can pass. From Creston sent a telegram to Heber with information of my welfare.

(Wednesday, February 14th) – Last night moved 3 miles. Fine weather; more working. 5 miles progress today. Last night a party of 5 men left the train to walk to Wash-a-kie 25 miles whence they were forwarded by special train to Ogden & San Francisco. Heavy storm all the evening until 11 PM. Fine afterwards. About dark a train of 3 cars and about eighteen mules arrived from Fort Steele with supplies consisting of 1,000 loaves of bread, 1,000 pounds of beef crackers, cheese, fruits, etc. A relief much needed as there were only sufficient provisions to last one meal.

(Thursday, February 15th) – Unusually fine so that rapid progress is made. At 10 AM out for a walk on the mountain to search for agates and pebbles with an eye for topaz. Found many fine specimens including a few moss agates of poor quality. Returned just as the train was starting for Creston which we reached at 4 PM, this being the summit of the Rocky Mountains. A beautiful table land extends in every direction from horizon to horizon beyond which  lofty peaks rear their heads thousands of feet in height apparently ending in the heavens. As we watch the various changes taking place all kinds of wonderful & grotesque shapes all pleasing and agreeable. Now and then you catch a glimpse of the most perfect outline of mountain clouds wandering away beyond sight in most graceful outlines of beauty such as nature alone is capable of producing.

It is now near sunset and the hour when most often passengers take their afternoon meal which is, of course, attended with much confusion & rattling of dishes, babel of tongues so that one is unable to write interestingly or even connectedly. Many people have today amused themselves by chasing rabbits over the snow and it has afforded no end of amusement to watch their vain efforts. Just as one man is at the point of putting a hand on one of the little creatures off he goes like the wind & the hunter starts up with a curse and a renewal more silent than before. But the animals are too fleet and not withstanding pistol shots and clubs thrown with the full force of a muscular arm they all escape to laugh at those strange & rough intruders of their domain. A few sportsmen who have guns have just returned from a tramp among the mountains having been successful in bagging a few antelope. At this place we learn more of trains approaching us from the opposite direction with probability of our meeting sometime tomorrow.

(Friday, February 16th) –The two trains are within sight; separated by only two drifts – and we shall meet about 2 PM. We all feel sanguine about getting through and to celebrate the event our noon day meal was unusually abundant as no further economy is necessary. Our conductor was invited to join us and we sat down to elk steaks, potatoes, current jelly and other delicacies such as our larder affords. Reached Bitter Creek [a telegraph station 34 miles West of Wash-a-kie] at 5 pm where we changed cars for Ogden.

[Central Pacific Railroad]

(Saturday, February 17th) – Arrived at Ogden. 11:30 AM: Changed cars and at 4:30 started for San Francisco. Had a fine run over the Sierra Nevada Mountains with three engines for the steepest part of the way. Saw a great deal of snow but suffered no detention, the track being cleared. Passed through 40 miles of continuous snow sheds on the Eastern [Western] Slope. There had been a landslide in one place some 100 feet in length but it was cleared for us.

Houseworth 1298
Houseworth 1304
Snow Sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad provided a safe and rapid winter passage in contrast to
the three week ordeal on the Union Pacific Railroad in blizzard conditions.
Snowshed Images Courtesy New York Public Library, Robert Dennis Stereograph Collection.

We arrived at this city [San Francisco] at noon on Monday, Feb. 19th, giving me 36 days [January 14 to February 19] from Boston and the most eventful journey in the history of railroading.

There was, of course, much suffering amongst second class passengers, and others who could not afford to buy supplies & who were cooped up in ordinary cars. How they managed to eat, live, & sleep with two people in each seat will always be a marvel to me. On one occasion as a matter of  curiosity I walked through one of the cars simply to see how matters were & I can assure you that the condition was even worse than a pig sty. Such a mess of filth, foul air and dirty people I never want to see again. The railroad people were so lazy that they refused to clean the cars, and, on the few occasions of cleaning, the passengers did it themselves. It is a wonder to me that a pestilence did no go through the trains for there was enough filth to breed one.

In the sleeping cars there was comparative comfort with a porter to each. In our car we were better provided than any others. There were only 14 passengers, three being ladies. We divided it into two messes and all took part in the cooking. For instance two would cook, one make coffee, one wash dishes, another wipe them, some forage – sometimes walking miles ahead of the train so as to reach stations first and so secure a share of food. In this way we managed to get along well enough having plenty to eat and drink. Two of our party happened to be acquainted with the baggage master who distributed provisions when there was any in stock and we got many nice things which others did not.

For cooking, we bought a few tin pails, coffee pot, tin cups, half a dozen bowls, as many plates, 3 knives and forks, and, out of telegraph wire, we made a very decent griddle. In eating one would cut up meat in small pieces and pass to each a plate, thus by using a jack knife we managed to get the belly full. I was appointed Knight Of The Teapot so had no very disagreeable duty. Our mess numbered 8 persons representing a mining engineer, proprietor of mines, clothing dealer living in Salt Lake City, retired brewer, and a Real Estate broker from Ogden. The other mess was composed of a lady & son living in Idaho, one young man who had been dismissed from the Naval Academy for hazing freshmen.

One of the ladies was somewhat of an invalid and suffered from fits, several of which she had and one night she fell out of bed in one & I put her back again. One of our party was somewhat of a poet and produced many a verse of fun which we sang to some favorite and popular air. Plucked youth and lady of 17 amused themselves by carrying on a most desperate flirtation much to our edification. For occupation we would read, play cards during the day, shovel snow and have singing during the evening including both sacred and secular music.

Since arriving here I have had considerable pleasure, including a visit to the New Almaden Quick Silver mines, visiting the beautiful residence of Mr. [William C.] Ralston, cashier of the Bank of California, and also the more elegant one belonging to the President [Darius O. Mills] of same bank, which is without exception the finest in the country. The first is more extensive & has 29 bedrooms including a fine ballroom. The stables are immense including 30 horses and there are besides another 30 out to pasture – truly a princely establishment. I passed a day and two nights at his house and Mr. R. gave me a drive with four in hand visiting two other of the finest residences in the state owned by men worth millions.

Pacific Mail Steamship Co. steamer "Japan." Courtesy John Hutchinson Collection.
Pacific Mail Steamship Co. Steamer "Japan."
On December 17, 1874, the then six year old "Japan" caught fire
shortly after leaving Hong Kong for San Francisco and sank in deep water
south of Swatow with the loss of more than 400 lives.
The Captain and 120 others survived. —BCC
Image Courtesy John Hutchinson Collection.

We sail Friday [March 1st] at noon on the steamer "Japan" and I will trust have a fine voyage. There are about thirty passengers going. This letter is long enough to last until my arrival in China. It is written hurriedly and doubtless therefore contains numerous mistakes all of which should be excused under the circumstances.

 Love to all,
 Affectionately, Scott

( P.S.) Letters from Edith & Frank but no time to answer separately. 28th Feb: letters received last night from young Edith & Heber for which thanks.

NOTE: Walter Scott Fitz wrote his remarkable account of "the most eventful journey in the history of railroading" at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco on February 28th, 1872, nine days after his arrival in that city, and the day before he was to board the steamer "Japan" to sail for China. His account appears to be based in part on contemporaneous notes he took during the journey, and in part on his later recollections. He notes, however, that it was "written hurriedly and doubtless therefore contains numerous mistakes." This appears to refer to several internal inconsistencies in his account as to the specific days and dates on which a few of the events during the period between February 3rd and February 7th actually took place. For clarity I have therefore taken those few events in the original transcription which, based on the surrounding context, seem chronologically out of sequence, and moved them to what seems to be the actual days and dates on which they would have more likely taken place. —BCC

Original transcription (from a 19th century manuscript copy of the now lost original letter) and portrait photograph courtesy of John W. Hutchinson, Jr.
Editing and annotation by Bruce C. Cooper.
[Emphasis in
Bold print added.]

Images courtesy of:

Walter Scott Fitz

Walter Scott Fitz, portrait, 1872.

Walter Scott Fitz was born in Chelsea (MA) in 1838 and attended school there. Soon after his father died of yellow fever while serving as U.S. Consul in Aux Cayes, Haiti, in 1854, his mother was obliged to open a school for young ladies in Dedham, then part of Brookline on the outskirts of Boston. Soon after the family moved to Brookline, Mr. Fitz entered upon a business career to help support his mother. He was employed first by Hayden, Richardson & Co., dry goods merchants, and then Pickering, Winslow & Co., importers. In 1860 he received an offer from Wetmore, Williams & Co. to enter their employ at their house of business in Shanghai, China.

On February 7, 1860, he sailed from Boston at the age of 22 as the only passenger on the clipper ship "Fearless." During a raging storm on this long winter passage the captain feared his ship would go to the bottom and comfortingly advised his youthful passenger to take a last look at the photographs of his family and friends as he would probably never see them again. "Clipper off Boston." Painting by John W. Hutchinson, Jr. Courtesy of the Artist. The captain's gloomy predictions were not fulfilled, however, and, after a stop at the island of Java, the "Fearless" carried her solitary passenger to port in Hong Kong after a voyage of 133 days.

Leaving Hong Kong ten days later, Mr. Fitz made the six day journey to Shanghai by the steamer "Hellespont." Soon after his arrival in China, however, he left the firm (then known as Wetmore, Ceyder & Co.) to enter into business at Tientsui on his own account with an Englishman as partner. This venture was unsuccessful, but in March, 1863, he received an offer from the firm of Russell & Co., the well-known China Merchants, to enter their employ in Shanghai. After time there and at Kim Kiang, Mr. Fitz moved on to Hankow in May, 1866, to take charge of the Russell & Co. agency there. He returned to Shanghai in December, 1869, where he was made a partner in the firm.

On June 23, 1871, Mr. Fitz returned to Boston for his first trip home in eleven years. After a seven month visit he left Boston on January 14, 1872, by Overland train for San Francisco from which he would sail on for China by steamer. It was this trip over the Pacific railroad – which should have been easily completed in less than a week – that turned in to the 36-day blizzard-filled transcontinental adventure on the Union Pacific Railroad described in his letter above as "the most eventful journey in the history of railroading."

In 1873 Mr. Fitz became managing partner of Russell & Co. at Hong Kong, and in 1877 he returned to America and retired having made his fortune. He was just 39 years old. Although still a bechelor at age 40, on May 30, 1878, he married Anna C. Wigglesworth, the daughter of Dr. Edward Wigglesworth, a renowned Boston dermatologist, and sister of his dear friend, Ned Wigglesworth. Tragically he became a widower just four months later when she died in Paris during their wedding trip on September 30, 1878. In July, 1888, after ten years as a widower, Mr. Fitz married his late wife's sister, Henrietta, the widow of Edward Jackson Holmes, a Boston lawyer and son of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, famed alike in the fields of medicine and literature.

Walter Scott Fitz was, in the truest sense of the word, a self-made man who took advantage of each opening as it came and rose rapidly while yet a comparatively young man. He was able to retire from active business with a comfortable fortune whose foundation was laid by his unremitting diligence and untiring devotion to the interests of his employers. Mr. Fitz died suddenly in Paris after a shopping expedition with his second wife on October 3, 1900, at the age of 62.  —John Hutchinson

John Whiton Hutchinson, Jr., a great grand nephew of Walter Scott Fitz, is a distinguished painter and marine artist who lives and works in Salem, Mass.

Wyoming Map
Sources: Base map; Timetable.

Also see the book Snowbound Streamliner: Rescuing the City of San Francisco: 1952 by Robert J. Church, Signature Press, 2000.
"On January 13, 1952 the Southern Pacific's luxury passenger train, the streamlined City of San Francisco, became mired in a snow avalanche at Yuba Gap, near Donner Pass. The 226 passengers and crew on board would remain snowbound for 3 days and nights, as a Sierra blizzard raged unabated. This is a railroaders' story of the dramatic rescue effort, based on first-hand recollections of many who were involved, and on an extensive collection of photographs, many from the files of the SP. This rescue has become one of the most dramatic efforts recorded in the annals of railroad history." Description courtesy Golden Spike Books.

Also see: "The Case of the Stranded Streamliner" The rescue of SP's snowbound "City of San Francisco"at Yuba Pass, January 13-19, 1952. by Howard W. Bull "Trains & Travel" Vol 13, #3 January, 1953.

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