Sedalia to Kansas City, Missouri Great American Railroad Journeys


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Sedalia to Kansas City, Missouri

Michael Portillo discovers the hidden pleasures of 19th-century railroad workers in Sedalia, known as the Sodom and Gomorrah of the West.


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I have crossed the Atlantic

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to ride the railroads of North America

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with my reliable Appletons' Guide.

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Published in the late-19th century,

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Appletons' General Guide To North America

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will direct me to all that's novel, beautiful, memorable

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and striking in the United States.

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INDISTINCT SHOUTING

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As I journey across this vast continent,

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I'll discover how pioneers and cowboys conquered the West...

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GUNFIRE

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..and how the railroads tied this nation together,

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helping to create the global superstate of today.

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In the boom decades immediately before my guidebook was published,

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intrepid pioneers piled into the American West,

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determined to build new lives in territory

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that they regarded as vacant but was, in fact, home

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to hundreds of thousands of Native American Indians.

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As I continue to roll westwards across the United States,

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travelling through Missouri,

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it strikes me that these tracks follow the trails

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that were first blazed with boot leather and wagon wheels.

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I want to see what traces remain of the pioneer spirit

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that drove people to cross the Great Plains

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and to understand how the arrival of the iron horse

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changed their lives for better or worse.

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I began in St Louis, Missouri,

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gateway to the West across the Mississippi.

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Continuing westward, I'll take in Kansas City and Dodge city.

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I'll discover a surprising British outpost in Colorado Springs

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before turning south to Hispanic Albuquerque in New Mexico.

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My journey will end at Arizona's extraordinary natural wonder...

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the Grand Canyon.

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On this leg, I begin in the railroad town of Sedalia

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and find myself at the old trailhead

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for those heading west in Independence.

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I'll end this part of my journey

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on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri.

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Today, I'll discover the hidden pleasures

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of 19th-century railroad workers...

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One of the St Louis newspapers referred to Sedalia as

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"the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Midwest".

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..confront the brutal hardships faced by early pioneers...

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400,000 people made that journey.

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They claim at least 9% died along the way.

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..and find out that, when it comes to American freight trains,

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it's all about size.

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So let's say the average length of a car is 20 yards

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and you've got 100 cars.

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That's 2,000 yards. That is more than a mile!

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We do have some long trains here, yes.

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My next stop will be Sedalia, Missouri,

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which, according to Appletons',

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is "a busy manufacturing town and railroad centre.

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"The principal street is 120 feet wide,

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"finely shaded, and has many handsome buildings."

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I'd like to investigate the shady side of this railroad town.

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Founded in 1860, Sedalia retains its period character,

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with wide streets and old buildings.

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When my guidebook was published, this was an important railroad town,

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full of engineering workshops and storage depots.

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Railroad workers and passengers looked for entertainment

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and Sedalia was proud to deliver.

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Rhonda Chalfant is an historian.

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Paint me a picture of this railroad town in the late-19th century.

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Lots of businesses, lots of industry, lots of noise.

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Something like 24 trains coming through each day.

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And along West Main Street, lots of brothels.

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-Brothels?!

-Yes.

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In the upstairs rooms of what were legitimate businesses.

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-Were these brothels legal?

-Of course not!

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But the prostitutes contributed a great deal of money

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to the town's economy.

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They dressed nicely, most of them.

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Some of them owned property and paid property taxes

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and they appeared in court to pay their fine.

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If they paid their fine, their house was not raided.

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By the 1890s,

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12 buildings in a single Main Street block housed brothels,

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with others scattered throughout the town.

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-Was that typical of small-town America?

-No.

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One of the St Louis newspapers referred to Sedalia

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as "the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Midwest".

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Is that because there was a special kind of clientele in Sedalia?

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Somewhat.

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The number of transients - railroad workers, travelling salespeople,

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that were in and out - did create some of the demand

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but also, apparently, there were quite a number of men

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who just sought the services of the ladies.

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Rhonda has brought me to a place that she promises

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will offer a glimpse into Sedalia's disreputable past.

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Rhonda, what den of iniquity have you brought me to?

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This is 217 West Main.

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It is listed on the National Register Of Historic Places.

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When it was listed in 1996,

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it was the second brothel to be so recognised.

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MICHAEL CHUCKLES Let's go inside.

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-Michael, this way.

-Thank you.

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'Jack Lewis now owns the building.'

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Thank you.

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This room was a place where the ladies met their clients,

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-is that right?

-Yes.

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I would say this was the social room.

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They would play games, drink, might have had a piano in here.

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You know, women sitting on their laps.

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-And you've been stripping away the wallpaper, is that right?

-I have.

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-And some people did it long before I did.

-And what have you discovered?

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-All of this graffiti?

-Drawings, names, addresses...

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Wow. And this will date back to when, do you think?

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First date we found was 1874.

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And what are the sort of things that they are writing on the wall

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-that you can tell me about?

-Old ballads, old poems

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from very risque to very colourful.

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You know, it refers to the ladies, it refers to the era,

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a lot of railroad stuff.

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"Bertha, best in the house."

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"Josie, the best-looker on Main Street."

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Appreciative comments from clients,

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railroad workers and others,

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who never imagined that their graffiti

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would become a matter of historical record.

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So, Jack, if you wanted to know the written history of Sedalia,

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-read the brothel walls.

-That would work.

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Brothels offered more than one sort of entertainment.

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Sedalia's red-light district

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provided a venue for black musicians to perform.

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The town became known as the cradle of a new musical genre...

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Ragtime.

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And its most famous composer was Scott Joplin.

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-MAN:

-# Won't you come home, Bill Bailey?

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# Won't you come home? #

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What a lovely building!

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Clearly a former railroad station

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of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad.

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And from the "KT" in the middle of those initials, known as Katy.

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-MAN:

-# I know I've done you wrong

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# Remember that raining evening

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# I threw you out

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# With nothing but a fine toothcomb

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# Yes, I know that I'm to blame

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# But ain't that a shame?

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# Bill Bailey, won't you please come home?

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# Bill Bailey, won't you please come home? #

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HE PLAYS ON THE HARMONICA

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MUSIC STOPS

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Fantastic!

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Oh, I enjoyed that! That gets rid of the blues, doesn't it?

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So, is this ragtime?

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-Yes.

-And what distinguishes ragtime?

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-A combination of overlapping rhythms...

-Mm-hm.

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..where a rhythm is given as much attention as the melody.

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That's what signifies and characterises ragtime.

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And was Scott Joplin really the pioneer of that?

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-Pioneer of classic ragtime.

-Yeah.

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I mean, the genius of Scott Joplin is he fused African American rhythms

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with classical European composition.

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You could say it was the first authentic

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widespread popular American music. Indigenous.

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RAGTIME PIANO

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Born in Texas, a young Scott Joplin moved to Sedalia in the 1880s

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and enrolled in the George R Smith College for Negroes to study music.

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His big break came when the owner of a music store in Sedalia

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published his Maple Leaf Rag in 1899.

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It sold half a million copies and set off the ragtime craze.

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-Hey! You really tickle the ivories.

-Thank you!

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-Doesn't she swing a mean finger? ALL:

-Yes!

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Are you a Sedalia man?

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I am. I've lived here for about eight years now.

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-Where did you come from before that, then?

-I was born in Boston.

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Is there much difference between Massachusetts and Sedalia, Missouri?

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Huge difference. In Boston it is such a rat race.

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Whereas here...you meet people, you know?

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And I love it that you can meet somebody out on the street

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and just have a conversation with people.

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I'm using a 19th-century guidebook and, at the time,

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Sedalia was known as "the Sodom and Gomorrah of Missouri", I think.

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-Is it still Sodom and Gomorrah?

-It is not.

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Today we have this swathe that we call the Bible Belt

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and we're right in the middle of that.

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Missouri is really a big part of that.

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What does it really mean to be in the Bible Belt?

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Generally speaking, it's middle-class America.

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It's hard-working, average people.

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And they believe in what God has for us.

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It's about following a different way of life than our own, er...

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natural tendencies.

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And what practical difference does that make

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to the way that people behave towards each other?

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We love each other. It's all about love.

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And does that love extend to people who aren't like you?

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Black people, non-Christians, Muslims?

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Oh, sure it does, yeah.

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Love... Love transcends all, doesn't it?

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I will have that thought in mind as I board my train.

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Good! Thank you, Mike.

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From Sedalia, my journey following in the footsteps of the pioneers

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is taking me 84 miles westward

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on Amtrak's Missouri River Runner service.

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My next stop will be Independence, Missouri,

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which Appletons' tells me is

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"a neat and thriving town with much business activity".

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I wonder what made its wheels go round

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before the railroads called into town?

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-Hello, ladies.

-Hi!

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I spotted you, because you are being very jolly. What you are up to?

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-Why are you having so much fun?

-We're on our mother-daughter trip.

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-Ah, lovely.

-Yes.

-And where is your mother-daughter trip taking you?

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-To Kansas City.

-Now, I'm doing a journey through history.

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-Do you like history?

-I teach history, so...

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-You teach it?

-I teach history.

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Do you ever think about the old days?

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I mean, before the railroads,

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what about the wagons and the frontiersmen and the settlers?

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I do. I mean, I just think it would be neat to go back in time

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and see all of that, just be a part of it.

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You'd wear a lot of clothes and you'd be dirty more frequently.

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But I think it would be neat to find out.

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And once again, ladies and gentlemen,

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our next stop is Independence, home to Harry S Truman,

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the 33rd President of the United States.

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Independence, your stop. Please gather your belongings

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and be ready to exit the train. Independence will be next.

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That was a great ride. Thank you so much.

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-You're welcome.

-Bye-bye, now.

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This is the house of Harry S Truman.

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He didn't have a college education,

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he ran a haberdashery business here in Independence.

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He became President of the United States.

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Took the decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan.

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And after the Second World War, with the Marshall plan,

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rebuilt Japan and Germany as democracies.

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A self-educated man from small-town America

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reached the White House

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and took decisions that have shaped the world.

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That's the American dream.

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Before railroads crossed the continent,

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Independence, Missouri was the trailhead

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for the gruelling and epic 2,000-mile trip west

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to Oregon or California.

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Pioneers would gather here before setting out into the great unknown.

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I'm taking a ride with tour guide Ralph Goldsmith.

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Ralph, what is the significance of Independence

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in the story of the conquest of the West?

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Well, Independence is where the trails began.

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The main reason is that Independence was about as far west

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as you could get on the Missouri River at that time.

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So, for example, in the 1840s,

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what sort of people were starting from Independence?

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Would they be families or ambitious young men?

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A little of both. A little of both.

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They, er...

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Horace Greeley said it, "Go west, young man, go west."

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If you're ambitious, you know, there are opportunities out there.

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They were giving land away free in Oregon.

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All you had to do was get there.

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Some people would sell everything they had to come here, you know,

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to make a new nation here.

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Between 1840 and 1860,

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around half a million migrants made the journey west on the trails.

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The most popular destination was Oregon.

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But the discovery of gold in California in 1849

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drew tens of thousands to seek their fortune.

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-Did you need to have a bit of money to go out west?

-Oh, yeah.

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You had to buy your oxen and mules and all your supplies.

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But you have to understand, it was a wagon train industry here.

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Think about it. A thousand wagons leaving town in one month in 1845.

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Six animals per wagon.

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That's 6,000 head of livestock left this area.

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Times four.

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24,000 mule shoes, ox shoes and horseshoes had to go on.

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It was incredible. The commerce here was just off the wall.

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Right here, where the courthouse is,

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is where the Presbyterian and Methodist church

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would have gatherings here and pray for the pioneers as they'd leave.

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The Episcopal church down here

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would actually anoint them, the animals, with holy water.

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It was a pretty perilous undertaking.

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It was a perilous taking. They were taking their lives in their hands.

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Five-and-a-half months from this point, right here.

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And they never averaged more than 9 to 15 miles per day.

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Unbelievable.

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They called it "seeing the elephant".

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You know, you had this vision of what it's going to be like

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but, when you get out on the prairie,

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there's nothing but prairie grass for thousands of miles.

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And you realise, "Holy Moley, what have I got myself into?"

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Ralph, I want you to level with me. What are our chances of making it?

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400,000 people made that journey.

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They claim at least 9% died along the way.

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-Died of what?

-Dysentery, snakebites,

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wagon accidents, cholera.

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They claim less than 300 of them

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were actually killed by American Indians along the way.

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But those people, their courage, their strength, their stamina,

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they're the ones who made us a nation

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from sea to shining sea.

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We had a name for this dream.

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We called it "manifest destiny".

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Yah! Come on, get 'em up, now!

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-Here, you take them for a while.

-OK.

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Let's go west, young man!

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All right!

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I smell...gold!

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At the end of the day,

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wagon trains would be drawn into a circle to corral the livestock.

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-What's for supper, Keith?

-Buffalo soup.

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-Not again!

-Oh, yeah.

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It's your favourite.

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I tell you, Keith, it's good.

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To many pioneers on the trail, my meal would have seemed like a feast.

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Diaries reveal the hardships that they faced.

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Virginia Reid Murphy, aged 13, 1846 -

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"We could scarcely walk

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"and the men had hardly enough strength to procure wood.

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"We would drag ourselves through the snow.

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"Poor little children were crying with hunger and mothers were crying

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"because they had so little to give to their children.

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"We now had nothing to eat... but raw hides."

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Terrible.

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At the time of my Appletons' Guide,

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waves of migrants continued to push the American frontier westward,

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while others settled.

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15 miles south of Independence,

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I hope to find out what life was like for them

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from Jonathan Klusmeyer, who, along with 150 volunteers...

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Thank you. It's so nice to see you.

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..runs a living history museum called Missouri Town 1855.

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You know, there is such amazing tranquillity here.

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I can't believe it. No sound of cars, no sounds of trains.

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-It's a very special place, isn't it?

-Absolutely it is.

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The town actually never existed.

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We actually moved buildings in here

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from different parts of western Missouri.

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So these buildings have come from somewhere else,

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-but they're perfect in their period detail?

-Yeah.

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These folk, who came to Missouri,

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they had not made the trek of 2,000 miles to Oregon or California

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but, nonetheless, the conditions they found here were difficult.

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They were difficult.

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So they found rocky soil, they found tall trees,

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they had to clear all of these roots out of the area

0:20:090:20:11

and really get the land ready to farm.

0:20:110:20:14

So where had they come from?

0:20:140:20:16

They were coming from all over the South, primarily.

0:20:160:20:19

Until actually you get into the 1850s,

0:20:190:20:21

when the Germans and Irish started coming over,

0:20:210:20:23

you're getting mainly just Virginians,

0:20:230:20:25

people from Tennessee and also Kentucky,

0:20:250:20:27

that are trying to escape the higher land prices in the East.

0:20:270:20:30

The Homestead Act of 1862

0:20:330:20:36

opened up settlement of the Western United States

0:20:360:20:39

by allowing any citizen over 21 to claim 160 acres of land.

0:20:390:20:45

Those who farmed it successfully for five years would then own it.

0:20:450:20:49

Others were drawn to follow, and settlements grew into towns.

0:20:510:20:55

Hello.

0:20:550:20:56

The number of such claims approved eventually exceeded 1.5 million.

0:20:570:21:03

-Hello, sir.

-Mr Bailey.

0:21:030:21:05

They tell me this is the very heart of the village.

0:21:050:21:07

Who are your clients? What are they coming here for?

0:21:070:21:09

Well, pretty much everybody has some business with me one way or another,

0:21:090:21:12

but most of the people, of course, are farmers.

0:21:120:21:15

So I put tyres on the wagon wheels, shoes for the horse, mule and ox.

0:21:150:21:19

And whatever their metal needs are, I pretty much take care of them.

0:21:190:21:23

Tell me a bit about how the town works.

0:21:230:21:25

I think of people here being self-reliant.

0:21:250:21:27

But, actually, I'm getting an impression

0:21:270:21:28

that it has to function as a community.

0:21:280:21:30

We're really more dependent on one another than you might imagine.

0:21:300:21:33

I don't farm, but I still like to eat.

0:21:330:21:36

So what I do is, oftentimes,

0:21:360:21:38

if people can't afford to pay me outright with cash, we do barter.

0:21:380:21:42

And that's, of course, a way of life with us.

0:21:420:21:44

Now, I interrupted you. You were making something.

0:21:440:21:46

Well, yes, sir. Got a little hook in the fire here.

0:21:460:21:49

You want to work it whilst it's still hot.

0:21:490:21:51

The old saying, you've got to strike while the iron's hot.

0:21:510:21:53

This is where it came from.

0:21:530:21:55

I'm making a little curlicue on the end of this.

0:21:550:21:57

We don't want this to snag momma's dress

0:21:570:21:59

while she's working in the kitchen.

0:21:590:22:00

And the next thing that's left

0:22:000:22:03

is just to put a twist in it to kind of finish it off.

0:22:030:22:05

Why don't you come on over here and try the bellows for a little bit?

0:22:050:22:09

-Takes a bit of effort, Mr Bailey.

-Yes, it does.

0:22:100:22:13

We're going to bring that out.

0:22:130:22:15

Put it with the hook up in the vice.

0:22:160:22:19

-Now, take the tongs and get a good grip on the shank itself.

-Yeah.

0:22:190:22:23

And in this state, it's easy enough to put a little twist in there.

0:22:230:22:26

There you go, sir.

0:22:270:22:29

A lovely S-hook with twists at either end,

0:22:300:22:33

ready for grandma's kitchen.

0:22:330:22:35

To encourage western migration,

0:22:380:22:40

the Homestead Act even made provision for women and freed slaves

0:22:400:22:45

to take over land and begin new lives in the prairies and beyond.

0:22:450:22:49

-Good morning, Linda.

-Hello.

0:22:500:22:52

-How are Dan and Murphy today?

-Very good, thank you.

0:22:520:22:55

They've been very busy ploughing, hauling grain.

0:22:550:22:59

And excuse me asking you, it is usual for a woman

0:22:590:23:01

to be in control of a couple of huge oxen?

0:23:010:23:03

It is not that common but, of course,

0:23:030:23:05

in the absence of her husband or any sons,

0:23:050:23:08

women of all ages and all generations rise to the occasion

0:23:080:23:12

and do what's required of them.

0:23:120:23:13

Honestly, what's it like for a woman in 1855 living out here in the West?

0:23:130:23:17

Well, it can be rather frightening. It can be very lonely.

0:23:170:23:21

But, of course, that makes it all the more enjoyable

0:23:210:23:24

when we get to go to church or if we have a quilting bee

0:23:240:23:28

-and get together with the other ladies.

-Hm...

0:23:280:23:30

Now, next time I get lonesome, I'll think about a quilting bee.

0:23:300:23:33

-Could be just the thing.

-It might be just the thing.

0:23:330:23:36

-Thank you, Linda.

-Thank you.

-Bye.

-Bye.

0:23:360:23:38

Railroad companies drove the settlement of the West.

0:23:410:23:45

In order to encourage new lines,

0:23:450:23:47

the government offered them generous land grants

0:23:470:23:49

on either side of their tracks.

0:23:490:23:52

They launched a settlement campaign,

0:23:530:23:55

offering transport and temporary accommodation,

0:23:550:23:58

while families built their own homes.

0:23:580:24:01

Communities quickly grew.

0:24:010:24:03

OLD-TIME COUNTRY MUSIC

0:24:030:24:08

Ma'am, what a privilege.

0:24:230:24:25

You are welcome, sir.

0:24:250:24:28

From Independence,

0:24:300:24:32

you can see the gleaming towers of Kansas City, Missouri,

0:24:320:24:35

ten miles away.

0:24:350:24:36

But most trains approaching the city today don't carry passengers.

0:24:400:24:45

They move America's freight.

0:24:470:24:50

Shellee Currier is from the South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad.

0:24:530:24:58

Shellee, I get the impression that Kansas City

0:25:000:25:03

must be a very major hub for rail freight.

0:25:030:25:05

Where does it rank in the nation?

0:25:050:25:06

Yes, Kansas City is the second largest rail hub after Chicago.

0:25:060:25:10

But it's first with consideration of tonnage

0:25:100:25:12

that travels through the terminal.

0:25:120:25:14

As you're seeing above us,

0:25:140:25:16

this is considered a container train.

0:25:160:25:18

You could have a mix of unit train,

0:25:180:25:20

where it's one train carrying one product, such as coal.

0:25:200:25:24

Or you could have what's called a manifest train,

0:25:240:25:27

100 to 132 railcars,

0:25:270:25:29

and it's a mixture of, like, cement or sand or things of that type.

0:25:290:25:33

So let's say the average length of a car is 60 feet, 20 yards.

0:25:330:25:37

And you've got 100 cars, that's 2,000 yards.

0:25:370:25:39

That is more than a mile!

0:25:390:25:42

We do have some long trains here, yes.

0:25:420:25:45

I get the feeling in Kansas City

0:25:450:25:46

we're at the centre of the spider's web. Would that be right?

0:25:460:25:49

That is true. Each carrier that's in here,

0:25:490:25:51

their network looks a little bit different.

0:25:510:25:53

For the Kansas City Southern, for example,

0:25:530:25:55

this is their furthest north point,

0:25:550:25:56

and then they're travelling down into the Mexico area.

0:25:560:25:59

For the Canadian Pacific, this is their furthest west point.

0:25:590:26:02

The BN and the Union Pacific,

0:26:020:26:03

they have traffic that runs both east and west

0:26:030:26:06

and also some lines north and south, as well.

0:26:060:26:09

At the time of my guidebook, separate rail companies cooperated

0:26:100:26:15

to provide direct services for goods across the United States.

0:26:150:26:19

Today, the freight rail network extends to 140,000 miles

0:26:200:26:26

and plays a major role in transporting goods.

0:26:260:26:28

Shellee, what sort of freight would you be moving on these lines?

0:26:310:26:35

Predominantly, we're moving bulk paper

0:26:350:26:37

that would be used to manufacture moving boxes and paper plates.

0:26:370:26:42

Keith, your job, then, is to pick up goods like this, like paper,

0:26:420:26:46

-and take them into the centre of Kansas City.

-That's correct.

0:26:460:26:49

What will happen to them there?

0:26:490:26:50

They switch them between different railroads

0:26:500:26:52

and send them on their way out.

0:26:520:26:54

So you're the local service. You're picking up and delivering

0:26:540:26:57

-to the cross-continental railway?

-That's right. We're the local crew.

0:26:570:27:00

This locomotive, how big a train could this haul?

0:27:000:27:02

This train is only 2,000 horsepower, so it'll haul about 2,000 tonnes.

0:27:020:27:07

-2,000 tonnes? That's still a serious amount.

-Oh, yeah.

0:27:070:27:10

Every night on this journey,

0:27:130:27:15

from my bed I hear the mournful horn of a locomotive.

0:27:150:27:19

TRAIN HORN BLARES

0:27:190:27:22

It is the soundtrack of the American economy.

0:27:220:27:26

TRAIN HORN

0:27:260:27:28

The settlers endured months of travel on wagons

0:27:300:27:33

that were pulled by oxen or mules

0:27:330:27:36

and many of them perished on the way.

0:27:360:27:39

The survivors had to clear forest or prairie

0:27:390:27:42

to have ground which they could plough.

0:27:420:27:45

They had to suffer the heat and the cold and disease.

0:27:450:27:48

The next time that I get cross because the car won't start,

0:27:480:27:51

or because the Wi-Fi's on the blink,

0:27:510:27:53

I'll remind myself that I would never have made a pioneer.

0:27:530:27:57

Next time...

0:28:010:28:03

I'll witness the art of the auctioneer.

0:28:030:28:06

56, 57...

0:28:060:28:08

..learn about the perils of the Pony Express...

0:28:100:28:13

"Wanted - young, skinny, wiry fellows,

0:28:160:28:18

"willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."

0:28:180:28:22

..and discover the truth about the demise

0:28:220:28:25

of one of America's most famous outlaws.

0:28:250:28:27

Jesse's not carrying a gun.

0:28:270:28:30

Jesse's back is to us. So we're just going to murder him in cold blood.

0:28:300:28:34

Following in the footsteps of European settlers, Michael Portillo rolls westwards across the United States. With true frontier spirit, he discovers the hidden pleasures of 19th-century railroad workers in Sedalia, known as the Sodom and Gomorrah of the West, and discovers the birthplace of ragtime and its most famous composer, Scott Joplin.

Aboard a horse-drawn wagon in Independence, Michael confronts the brutal hardships faced by early pioneers on the wagon trail and discovers a living history museum town where the clock stopped in 1855. He ends this leg in the rail hub of Kansas City, Missouri, where freight trains can be a mile long.