Let them eat cake

August 1864.

For 100 people on a train life was about to get a little frosty.

When we think of train travel in the United States in the late nineteenth century our thoughts probably shoot back to the famous moment when Marty murdered an innocent steam locomotive to travel back to the future.

Or the scene in Buster Keaton’s classic ‘The General’ where the Union army begins to realise that its health and safety regulations regarding flaming bridges needs a reassessment.

In both cases we’re reminded that train travel in America in this period could be prone to interruptions beyond what might be reasonably expected. It’s easy to assume that once the railways arrived people and goods were easily zipped from place to place (and for the most part they were, especially if you were eloping). But in a period where safety regulations were often lacking and there was little in the way of communication equipment to maintain contact services could be easily disrupted, especially in the United States where the distances travelled were so vast. In 1864 on the morning of New Year’s Day a train on the Michigan Central Railroad ploughed into an enormous snow drift. As the driver attempted to clear the obstacle he managed to drive his engine deeper into the drift. Seven miles from Chicago, with no easy means of raising the alarm, the train was now trapped with little prospect of immediate help.

With a large number of women and children aboard getting the passengers comfortable became a priority. Passengers braved the snow storm that was now engulfing them to collect wood from fences surrounding the railroad and used it to feed the stoves in one of the carriages. Unfortunately this endeavour was a little too successful, the stoves began to burn red hot and then set fire to the roof of the carriage. Having raised a fire, the passengers now desperately acted to quell one before it engulfed their shelter, but while the flames were brought under control, the carriage had to be abandoned. By 2 o’clock in the afternoon The Times reported ‘apprehensions of horrible death had begun to seize upon them’. But then in the distance came the sound of relief, another train was on its way.

400 yards away a train from the Michigan Southern line rolled up and stopped to pick up the stranded. The passengers were forced to wade through a drift almost ten feet in depth at the height of the storm to get to safety. Many were badly frostbitten in the process. On board the passengers were obliged to east the only source of food available, a wedding cake, which was promptly devoured. The train, now with a double load of passengers then attempted to get going. But for the passengers a sense of déjà vu was about to set in. Struggling to get up momentum the replacement train found itself confronted with an even larger snow drift two miles up the line. With reversing back down the line not an option, the train was reversed a short distance and then was driven as fast as possible into the drift. All that happened was that it then buried itself in the drift so deeply the wheels froze up. Having set fire to their last train, transferred to another, and eaten a happy couple’s wedding cake, the hapless passengers were now in exactly the same situation.

As evening fell two men decided to make their way towards Chicago to raise help, the conductor of the train Mr Curtis and a Mr Barnes (ostensibly of Goshen, Indiana). Making their way to the Fremont House they managed to raise the alarm amongst the guests, and a group of sleighs with blankets and provisions set out for the relief. Only two made it to the train. By 8 o’clock, however, these sleighs attempted to return to Chicago with several passengers. But the drifts were terrible, the sleighs constantly turned over, and the groups had to frequently extricate the horses. Eventually one sledge broke down, and the men were compelled to wade waist deep through the snow. By half past ten the group were hopelessly lost in the drifts, but a light was sighted in the distance. In a reverse of their previous fortune they had happened upon ‘the residence of a hospitable German, who made them comfortable for the night.’

The following morning the group were bemused to find they’d only made it half a mile from the train. Luckily, however, the agent of the railroad, himself blundering around for several hours in the storm had made it to the train at 10pm the previous night with provisions and blankets. Finally, the passengers were extricated that morning, brought on sleighs into Chicago, some frostbitten but all alive.

What the happy couple did without their wedding cake, alas, history does not record.

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