By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Author, Activity Professional
Valley Press Books

Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State.  She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of

Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care.  She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials.  Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
To Order Books by Marge Knoth
Wagon Trains, Canals, and Railroads
The super-highways of the 19th century

by Marge Knoth

Okay,  activity directors.  Here is yet another challenge to get your residents actively
reminiscing about some of America’s rich history that they probably learned in
elementary school. Today we are going to talk about canal travel, the early railroad, and
the gold rush, which subsequently  caused folks to flock to California by wagon trains
and on ships.  So let’s jump right in.

The Wabash-Erie Canal
Canals were the super-highways of the early to mid-1800s.  The American Revolution
showed the need for a water route between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast.  
Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamship, wrote to George Washington promoting
his vision for canal travel.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both became
avid supporters of the idea of canals which could link the individual states together.

It is hard to believe that two horses walking on the bank beside a four to 10-foot deep
man-made waterway, pulling a small flat-type boat called a  packet, at a whopping
speed of two-miles per hour,  could change the face of our country.  But it did!  It is also
hard to believe that men hand-dug hundreds of miles of canal using just picks, shovels,
and wheelbarrows.  Many of the workers were new European immigrants.  Before the
canal,  goods had to be transported by horse-drawn wagons.   The canals made it
possible to transport larger loads at less cost.  In a 24-hour period, supplies could be
shipped 55 miles.  People could be transported faster, though, on “express”  boats.  
They could cover 100 miles in 24 hours.  Mosquitoes were a nuisance on the narrow

One of the best known canals was the New York and Erie Canal.  It was an artificial
waterway connecting New York City with the Great Lakes via the Hudson River.  
President James Monroe vetoed federal funding claiming it was unconstitutional.  So
New York State provided the $7,144,000 to build it.  In exchange, they saw their city’s
economy grow and surpass other major cities like Boston and Philadelphia.  New York
City’s population ballooned from 123,706 in 1820 to 696,115 in 1850.

Construction of the 340 mile-long canal began July 4, 1817.  It was 40-feet wide at the
top and 28 feet wide at the bottom.  There was an actual 571-foot difference between
the river level and the lake, so 82 locks were built that provided a lift of 689 feet.   When
the canal was completed in 1825 and arrived in New York City on November 4th, John
Adams and Thomas Jefferson were still alive.  To celebrate this historic feat, a barrel of
Lake Erie water was dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.

The canal opened trade between the Midwest and the Eastern United States.  The East
could now enjoy crops and farm produce from the Midwest, and the Midwest could have
some of the finer things from New York. Before the canal, it cost $100 to ship a ton of
goods from Buffalo to New York.  After the canal, it cost $10.  Making relocation feasible,
the canal caused many to leave their rural homes and settle in cities.  Others watching
New York’s prosperity sought to build their own canals.  The Pennsylvania Canal came
in 1834, and the Wabash and Erie in 1835.  The latter was the longest man-made
waterway in the Western Hemisphere stretching 468 miles.  It brought economic
prosperity to Indiana and the Midwest by transporting people, goods, and iron rails to
build a railroad. Still, almost before the canal was finished, people with foresight saw
its demise.  The railroad was just new, much faster than canal travel, and could go
where canals could not.  Still, when the railroad tried to show its strength by charging
outrageous shipping fees, customers briefly returned to canal transporting.  But in the
end, canals simply could not compete with the railroads they had helped to build.

Westward Ho
They came on foot, in wagon trains, and on steamships.  Some sailed from the East
Coast all the way around Cape Horn, South America and back up to the West Coast of
the United States.  Others tried a short-cut through the Isthmus of Panama.  They came
not only from the East Coast and the Midwest, but from Mexico, France, China, Holland,
and Sweden.  Where were they headed and what were they seeking?  Very simple,

The year was 1848.  A construction crew led by James Marshall was building a saw mill
for John Sutter.  While working, Marshall spotted a few nuggets of gold.  The race was
on!  When Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase a few short years earlier,
he estimated it would take 500 years for the population to spread all the way to the West
Coast.  But now, half-a-million people were on their way to California to strike it rich.  
They dug along river banks, in underground river beds, and in mines. Gold was being
found in various areas.  In 1854, a 195-pound mass, the largest ever, was discovered
at Calaveras County.  A 54-pound nugget was found in another county.  But wait a
minute! Maybe we have the cart before the horse here. Let’s back up a bit and see what
price these people paid to seek their fortune.

Some tried a short-cut to California through the Isthmus of Panama (this was before the
Panama Canal was built).  They spent three days on a mule or in a canoe cutting their
way across the mosquito-infested raw land that was filled with monkeys and parrots.  
When and if, they reached the pacific side, they still had to wait weeks or even months
for a ship to take them on up to the gold country.  The skipper could charge them $500
or even $1000 for the voyage.  Sometimes after waiting there was not room on the ship
and they had to wait for yet another ship.  Other times ships were not seaworthy and
sank on the way.

Still other adventurers left from Florida’s West Coast, sailed across the Gulf of Mexico.  
Then they trekked through difficult Mexican deserts and finally reached California.  One
group who completed the 4000 mile trip say they survived the last 26-day foot journey to
San Diego by eating toads, berries, rattlesnakes and mules.  Once in California the
shock was too much for some Easterners to bear.  They had never seen the likes of
such lawlessness, such loose morals, such awful gambling, and such abandoned
drinking.  Before even heading inland to look for gold, they caught a ship back East.

Wagon Trains
Thousands set out by wagon train across the Great Plains hoping to stake their claim in
California.  The “forty-niners” as they were called, left in great expectations of finding a
new life.  So numerous were the westbound travelers that in 1846 a 642 mile-long
unbroken line of wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, oxen, mules, and people could be seen
stretching from Independence, Missouri to Fort Laramie, Wyoming.  Most folks took the
Oregon Trail.  More people went West through Kanesville and Council Bluff than
through St. Joseph and Independence.  Travelers tried to leave by mid-May to reach
their destination before the mountain passes were blocked by snow.  Some gathered
their own groups and set out.  Others, at about $200 each, hired a professional guide.  
Each train had an elected wagon master, or captain, as well as a scout who knew the
trail.  They could travel 12 to 20 miles a day, stopping at noon and again for the night.  
The wagons would circle to protect themselves from wild animals and potential Indian
attacks.  People often painted pictures on their canvas wagons which made it easy for
their friends to identify them.  Some wagon trains took along as many as 2000 cattle
and 10,000 sheep.  

It was not an easy journey.  Once across the Great Plains, there was still the Rocky
Mountains and then a desert-like terrain known as the Great Basin to cross.  The four-
month trek across the country involved living outside in 90 degree heat.  Baths were not
available.  They could not carry enough water and were sometimes forced to drink bad
water that gave them diarrhea.  Body odor was so bad that the Indians who were clean
people found the travelers repulsive.  Too much rain could wash out river crossings, too
little could cause water shortage and lack of grass for animals.  Everyone tried to move
forward because of the massive dust that was kicked up by wagons and animals
ahead of them.  Countless folks fell to sickness and even death along the way,
forgetting their dream of gold and wealth.  But for those who went the distance and were
lucky enough to find it, gold was indeed there.  By 1864, some $100 million of gold had
been dug.  This new money built an empire with iron foundries, shipping companies,
banks, and railroads.

The year was 1838.  The place was Meredosia, Illinois.  A historic train ride had just
taken place. A chosen few had the honor of riding on the first locomotive ever, west of
the Allegheny Mountains and north of the Ohio River.  They chugged down the eight
miles of track on the tiny locomotive called the Rogers, which had been shipped to
Meredosia in pieces and assembled there.  It chugged back again.  Those humble
beginnings formed what was later to be the mighty Wabash Railroad System which by
1877 boasted 678 miles of track.

In the early 1830s a few visionaries, including Joseph Duncan, a member on
Congress, dreamed of having a railroad in Illinois.  After all, Illinois, especially a little
burg called Chicago, was not growing as it should because the water route there was
long and weary.  Duncan tried to get financing for his railroad in Illinois but he was
laughed at.  After all, river and canal transportation was the newest and most accepted
transportation!  He then sought backers in New York but was again ridiculed.  Investors
could see no reason to build a railroad in the midst of an uninhabited forest.  But
Duncan pushed on and finally convinced Illinois to foot the bill for a railroad.  And so
came those first eight miles of track.

Forced to ship water, it was not easy getting materials to build or repair the railroad.  
When things broke down, a team of horses would be hooked up to pull the train down
the track.  The railroad was catching on, though, heading north, east, south, and now
west.  The dream was to have a transcontinental western railroad that would unite
California with the eastern part of the country.

The Northern Pacific Railroad  received a land grant of 39 million acres and charted a
path from Duluth, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington.  The Sioux Indians were not
pleased with the railroad’s construction on their land.  It clearly broke the treaty between
the white man and the Sioux.  For protection, General George Custer and the Seventh
Cavalry escorted 373 railroad workers and 275 supply wagons to the Yellowstone River
Valley.  For a time the Northern Pacific did not build bridges.  A ferry transported the
trains in summer, and rails were laid over the ice in winter.  They advertised, here and
abroad,  some of their granted land for sale.  Promoting the lovely land, they neglected
to mention the freezing winters in the Dakotas.  Many Eastern U.S. citizens,
Scandinavians, and Germans flocked to the Dakotas.  This opened the way for
Montana, North and South Dakota, and Washington to become states.  The Northern
Pacific Transcontinental Railroad was finally completed in 1883, and a gold spike was
nailed in place near Helena Montana.

Yes, even as slow as these modes of transportation must have been, canals, wagon
trains, and railroads were the prime of travel in the 19th century.  My goodness, how far
we have come!

So, as an activity director, you might ask, “What can I do with this material?”
1) Begin by trying to personalize it.  Discuss this material with your residents and let
them tell you about their experiences and memories.  Here is an example I found in a
facility where I once worked in the 1980s.  One of my older resident couples, who would
soon be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary at our facility, told about going out
West when it was still young.  

Opel went in 1907.  He married Bertha in 1917 when she was almost 15.   She told of
the excitement when the train went around dangerous edges of mountain ranges.  They
lived out of a covered wagon for a while.  He was a cowboy who earned $30 a month
plus a house, beef, and access to fruit trees and garden space.  Opel claimed that he
slept with a Colt-45 at his side to protect against rattlesnakes, mountain lions, and
other wild animals. He said, “When you need a horse, you just find yourself a wild range
horse and “break” it”.   They remembered when early telephone lines were simply
barbed wire strung across fence posts.

2) Discuss railroad travel.  In the prime of your residents’ lives, trains were the main
mode of travel.  They will have many stories to tell.  They saw the soldiers going off  to
WWII on trains and returning on trains.  Talk about trips they have taken.  Discuss
depots, ticketing,  sleeping and eating accommodations on trains. Discuss hoboes
and train-hopping during the Great Depression.  Ask about street cars and interurbans,
trains that ran from city to city.
3) Display a model train for a week in your facility.
4) Invite a train “buff” to come and talk about historical trains.
5) Show a film on railroad history. (Check your library or the internet.)
6) Hold a special railroad day or week.  Pass out railroad hats to residents.
7) Locate an old map and trace the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad across the
   Do the same with the Wabash and Erie Canal.
8) Honor residents who were railroad employees. Ask them to tell railroad stories.
9) Discuss wagon trains.  Seek any family stories passed down. They may recall tales
about great-great Uncle George who went West hunting gold and was never heard from
again, or great-great uncle Henry who was headed to California, but stopped in Kansas
and fell in love and never went any further.  
10) Talk abut gold.  Talk about when our country went off the gold standard onto silver.  
Discuss gold coins they may have had.  Discuss the price of gold today.
11) Locate old Wagon Train shows on video.  Short of that, show an old cowboy movie
involving a wagon train.
12) Ask who has ever been to California or out West somewhere. Talk about their
memories of it.
13) Talk about cowboys.  Determine if you have any in your facility and honor them.
14) Discuss ghost towns and what they tell us about the Old West.  Show a “ghost
town” movie.
15) Talk about ship voyages residents may have taken.  Do you have any seaman to
honor?  Encourage them to tell residents some sea stories.
16) See what residents can tell you about canals.  Their grandparents may have talked
about them.  They may know of canal remains still available.

During “railroad relocation” in my home town of Lafayette, Indiana, a part of the Wabash-
Erie Canal was temporarily uncovered.  Being a history buff, I went to check it out.  The
width of the canal at this point was probably 15 feet.  The inside walls on each side
were lined with very long  squared-off timbers,  about one foot by one foot in width.  
These square-shaped timbers were stacked one upon the other, maybe four to six
timbers high.  They were perfectly preserved.  It was like looking back in time some 150
years.  What a thrill!  Workers soon filled the canal in.  Progress???
Hopefully this column will provide you with some fun and exciting new activity sessions.  
My residents loved it, and I believe yours will too.  God bless you all.  Marge