When 19th century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson heard the woman he dearly loved was seriously ill in California, he immediately rushed to her aid. Stevenson was in Paris, France, and in poor health himself when Fanny Osbournes emotional cable arrived from Monterey. Fanny was married with two children and lived 6,000 miles away, but these were minor details to the love-struck bohemian. Stevenson responded with his own telegram message; Hold tight. I will be with you in one month.There was definitely something special about Fanny Osbourne. An admirer once said she was the only woman in the world worth dying for, and Robert Louis Stevenson was willing to take that risk.Stevenson was 26 years old when he first met Mrs. Fanny Osbourne, an American art student who was living and studying in Paris in 1876. The complex dark-eyed woman from California captivated Stevenson, who was just beginning to find himself as a novelist, essayist, and poet. He was so smitten by Fanny that he decided to pursue her even though it seemed the relationship would never succeed. Stevenson had studied law at Edinburgh University, but after meeting Fanny he totally abandoned that career in order to travel and write.
Stevensons friends and family disapproved of his reckless infatuation with a married American woman 10 years older than he, but despite everyones resistance to this scandalous romance Stevenson was determined to see Fanny again and he immediately sailed for the United States. It was 1879, and a journey from Europe to America meant 10 days in cramped quarters aboard a crowded steamship. Everyone feared that if the lack of food and sleep during the ocean crossing didnt kill the weak invalid, the subsequent trip to California in a hot and dusty emigrant train most likely would. Fortunately, Stevenson proved them wrong and the adventure of his arduous journey across the U.S. aboard primitive passenger trains inspired the ailing young writer to pen The Amateur Emigrant.Stevenson had two published books to his credit, but three more years still remained before he would produce the novel Treasure Island that would really boost his career and fame. The aspiring writer had spent most of his modest earnings traveling and battling chronic ill health, but he wasted no time using what little energy and money he had left to board the ship and trains that would take him to California.After a queasy trip across the Atlantic Ocean, Stevenson disembarked from his ship in New York City and then quickly departed on Aug. 18, 1879, on a train containing emigrants from four other ships. The scene was hectic and chaotic: There was a Babel of bewildered men, women, and children, Stevenson wrote. The wretched little booking-office, and the baggage room, which was not much larger, were crowded thick with emigrants, and were heavy and rank with the atmosphere of dripping clothes. Open carts full of bedding stood by the half-hour in the rain. The officials loaded each other with recriminations. A bearded, mildewed little man, whom I take to have been an emigrant agent, was all over the place, his mouth full of brimstone, blustering and interfering. It was plain that the whole system, if system there was, had utterly broken down under the strain of so many passengers.
The Union Pacific-Central Pacific was the only transcontinental line in operation until 1881 and Stevensons only option to hurry out west to Fanny. With little money, Stevenson was forced to buy a third- class ticket and journey on a crowded emigrant train from New York to California. In those days, affluent passengers paid extra for a berth in a luxurious Pullmans Palace Sleeping Car, available on the Union Pacific even before the 1869 completion of the transcontinental line. But Stevenson was dead broke, and his third-class ticket entitled him only to a hard wooden seat in a Spartan emigrant car. Stevenson didnt know how long much time it would take to reach Oakland, so he spent the days staring out the window thinking about Fanny.Despite the Diaspora of foreign travelers in New York City, Stevensons real adventure with this cacophony of humanity was waiting for him in Council Bluffs, Iowa, the beginning of the Union-Central Pacific section of the railroad. His train pulled into the Union Pacific Transfer Station in Council Bluffs, Iowa, at 9 oclock at night. He was still in line the following afternoon, in front of the Emigrant House, with more than a hundred others, to be sorted and boxed for the journey. One railroad car had been set apart for women and children, a second for men traveling alone and a third for Chinese travelers. Stevenson wrote that once the families had boarded, the men carried the second car without ceremony by simultaneous assault. He described the car as a flat-roofed Noahs ark, with a stove and a convenience, one at either end, a passage down the middle, and transverse benches upon either hand.Stevenson had plenty of time to observe the landscape and the antics of his fellow passengers because railroads handled emigrant cars differently than those carrying first- or second-class passengers.The railroad companies usually mixed freight and emigrant passenger cars on the same train, frequently switching off emigrant cars to make room for additional freight. Passengers on these trains were often forced to wait long hours at small way stations that were miles from any town with food or water. In 1872 Congress criticized this practice in a scathing report stating: Complaints have been made against the railway companies because they run the emigrant trains upon slow time or as extra trains. Not only is the time from New York to Chicago, or Saint Louis from three to four days, but the companies hold themselves responsible for no particular time whatever. The immigrant, with wife and children, must take his chances, live upon the hard benches upon springless cars for many days at his own expense, very often without water or fire, owing to the neglect of employees who care nothing for the comforts or necessities of foreigners who cannot even be understood. Since Congress has assumed the power to protect the dumb cattle in transit on railways, the power to protect passengers may be conceded. The report had no teeth, however, and although numerous bills were introduced in Congress to protect traveling emigrants, neither chamber felt obliged to vote on them. Free land in the American West was a powerful magnet for thousands of poor Europeans. An emigrant could obtain 160 acres of land under the Homestead Act, another 160 acres under the Timber Culture Act, with another 160 acres available to every member of the family over age 21, provided they intended to become American citizens.Money was another lure. Harpers Weekly pointed this out in an 1873 article: In our Western States they can get as much for one days labor as they are paid at home for a week; that they can soon save money enough to buy a farm; that the common schools are open to their children; that here they can rise to a position of independence and of perfect freedom. In the next issue, join Robert Louis Stevensons adventure on the rails across Nevada, over Donner Pass, and into California in 1879.Mark McLaughlin's column, Weather Window, appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. His award-winning books, Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly and Sierra Stories: Trues Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 & 2, are available at local bookstores. Mark, a Carnelian Bay resident, can be reached at email@example.com.