Robert Louis Stevenson travelling Across the Plains

“For many years America was to me a sort of promised land; ‘westward the march of empire holds its way’; the race is for the moment to the young; what has been and what is we imperfectly and obscurely know; what is to be yet lies beyond the flight of our imaginations. [. . . ] England has already declined, since she has lost the States; and to these States, therefore, yet undeveloped, full of dark possibilities, and grown, like another Eve, from one rib out of the side of their own land, the minds of young men in England turn naturally at a certain hopeful period of their age”
(RLS, The Amateur Emigrant, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol ii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 80)

On 7 August 1879 RLS boarded the Devonia at Greenock. The ship was bound for New York and he himself was bound for California to see Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, the woman who would soon be his wife. RLS arrived in New York City on 17 August. He stayed at the Reunion House, 10 West Street, New York and on the following day he began his train journey to California. On this page you can find out more about the route Stevenson took “across the plains” – where RLS stopped along the way and what he thought about the United States. You can also read about his journey in “Across the Plains: Leaves from the Notebook of an Emigrant between New York and San Francisco” (1883) in Across the Plains (1892).

Across the Plains in 1879: The Route

On this page you will also find details of other trips RLS took “across the plains”: his trip from San Francisco to New York in 1880 and his journey from New York to San Francisco in 1888.

Monday 18 August
In the evening RLS takes a river boat from New York to Jersey City, New Jersey. He boards the train at Jersey City and begins the journey to California.

Tuesday 19 August
The train continues along the Susquehanna River (in north-eastern USA). In the evening, the train stops in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. RLS waits in the waiting room there, where he changes to the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago Railroad.

Wednesday 20 August
The train leaves Pittsburgh, passing through Ohio and Indiana. RLS writes:
“All through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, or for as much as I saw of them from the train and in my waking moments, [the land] was rich and various, and breathed an elegance peculiar to itself. The tall corn pleased the eye; the trees were graceful in themselves, and framed the plain into long and aerial vistas; and the clean, bright, gardened townships spoke of country fare and pleasant summer evenings on the stoop. It was a sort of flat paradise; but, I am afraid, not unfrequented by the devil” (RLS, “Across the Plains”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol ii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911] p. 101).

In the evening the train reaches Chicago, Illinois: “Chicago seemed a great and gloomy city” (RLS, “Across the Plains”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol ii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 103).
In Chicago RLS leaves the train and takes an omnibus in order to change railroads. He is now on the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.

Thursday 21 August 1879
RLS eats at Burlington, Iowa on the Mississippi River. At Creston, Iowa, a drunk man boards the train and is thrown off. RLS is shocked to see that the man has a gun. At 9PM, RLS is deposited at the Pacific Transfer Station near Council Bluffs, Iowa (on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River). He stays in the Union Pacific Hotel.

Friday 22 August
At the Union Pacific train station, the passengers are sorted into three different cars: one for women and children, one for white men travelling alone, and one for Chinese passengers.The train now travels to Omaha, Nebraska.

Saturday 23 August
The train makes its way across the plains of Nebraska: “We were at sea – there is no other adequate expression – on the plains of Nebraska. [. . .] It was a world almost without a feature; an empty sky, an empty earth, front and back, the line of the railway stretched from horizon to horizon, like a cue across a billiard-board; one either hand, the green plain ran till it touched the skirts of heaven” (RLS, “Across the Plains”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol ii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 115). In the evening, the train stops at North-Platte, Nebraska, so that passengers can have their dinner.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday 24, 25, 26 August
The train travels through the Black Hills of Wyoming and along Bitter Creek, a stream in south-west Wyoming near Rock Springs. RLS finds the landscape of the Black Hills deeply uninspiring: “Hour after hour it was the same unhomely and unkindly world about our onward path; tumbled boulders, cliffs that drearily imitate the shape of mountains and fortifications – how drearily, how tamely, none can tell who has not yet seen them; not a tree, not a patch of sward” (RLS, “Across the Plains”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol ii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 119).

The train next passes through Laramie, Wyoming. At Ogden, Utah RLS changes cars from the Union Pacific Railroad to the Central Pacific Line Railroad.

Wednesday 27 August
In the morning, the train stops so the passengers can breakfast at Toano, Nevada. From Toano, the train makes its way across the deserts to Elko, Nevada.

Thursday 28 August
The train now travels through Blue Canyon, Alta, and Dutch Flat, old mining camps in California. In the afternoon the train comes to Sacramento, California.

Friday 29 August
The train travels through Oakland to San Francisco: “And when I think how the railroad has been pushed through this unwatered wilderness and haunt of savage tribes, and now will bear an emigrant for some £12 from the Atlantic to the Golden Gates; how at each stage of the construction, roaring, impromptu cities, full of gold and lust and death, sprang up and then died away again, and are now but wayside stations in the desert”
(RLS, “Across the Plains”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol ii [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 120).

Saturday 30 August
RLS arrives in Monterey where Fanny, her children Belle and Lloyd and her sister Nellie are staying. For more information about his stay in Monterey, see the page devoted to California in the Footsteps section of the website.

San Francisco to New York in 1880
After their marriage and honeymoon, RLS and Fanny decided to travel to the UK. RLS, his wife and Lloyd took a train from San Francisco on 29 July 1880. They arrived in New York on 6 August. On the following day they sailed from New York in the City of Chester to Liverpool, arriving on 17 August 1880.

New York to San Francisco in 1888
RLS travelled “across the plains” one more time in 1888. On 2 June, he made the journey from New York to San Francisco, arriving 7 June 1888 – from here he planned to make his trip on board the yacht Casco. He travelled to San Francisco by train via Chicago and Salt Lake City, meeting with Fanny in Sacramento.