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
to ride the railroads of North America
with my reliable Appletons' Guide.
Published in the late-19th century,
Appletons' General Guide To North America
will direct me to all that's novel, beautiful, memorable
and striking in the United States.
As I journey across this vast continent,
I'll discover how pioneers and cowboys conquered the West...
..and how the railroads tied this nation together,
helping to create the global superstate of today.
In the boom decades immediately before my guidebook was published,
intrepid pioneers piled into the American West,
determined to build new lives in territory
that they regarded as vacant but was, in fact, home
to hundreds of thousands of Native American Indians.
As I continue to roll westwards across the United States,
travelling through Missouri,
it strikes me that these tracks follow the trails
that were first blazed with boot leather and wagon wheels.
I want to see what traces remain of the pioneer spirit
that drove people to cross the Great Plains
and to understand how the arrival of the iron horse
changed their lives for better or worse.
I began in St Louis, Missouri,
gateway to the West across the Mississippi.
Continuing westward, I'll take in Kansas City and Dodge city.
I'll discover a surprising British outpost in Colorado Springs
before turning south to Hispanic Albuquerque in New Mexico.
My journey will end at Arizona's extraordinary natural wonder...
the Grand Canyon.
On this leg, I begin in the railroad town of Sedalia
and find myself at the old trailhead
for those heading west in Independence.
I'll end this part of my journey
on the outskirts of Kansas City, Missouri.
Today, I'll discover the hidden pleasures
of 19th-century railroad workers...
One of the St Louis newspapers referred to Sedalia as
"the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Midwest".
..confront the brutal hardships faced by early pioneers...
400,000 people made that journey.
They claim at least 9% died along the way.
..and find out that, when it comes to American freight trains,
it's all about size.
So let's say the average length of a car is 20 yards
and you've got 100 cars.
That's 2,000 yards. That is more than a mile!
We do have some long trains here, yes.
My next stop will be Sedalia, Missouri,
which, according to Appletons',
is "a busy manufacturing town and railroad centre.
"The principal street is 120 feet wide,
"finely shaded, and has many handsome buildings."
I'd like to investigate the shady side of this railroad town.
Founded in 1860, Sedalia retains its period character,
with wide streets and old buildings.
When my guidebook was published, this was an important railroad town,
full of engineering workshops and storage depots.
Railroad workers and passengers looked for entertainment
and Sedalia was proud to deliver.
Rhonda Chalfant is an historian.
Paint me a picture of this railroad town in the late-19th century.
Lots of businesses, lots of industry, lots of noise.
Something like 24 trains coming through each day.
And along West Main Street, lots of brothels.
In the upstairs rooms of what were legitimate businesses.
-Were these brothels legal?
-Of course not!
But the prostitutes contributed a great deal of money
to the town's economy.
They dressed nicely, most of them.
Some of them owned property and paid property taxes
and they appeared in court to pay their fine.
If they paid their fine, their house was not raided.
By the 1890s,
12 buildings in a single Main Street block housed brothels,
with others scattered throughout the town.
-Was that typical of small-town America?
One of the St Louis newspapers referred to Sedalia
as "the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Midwest".
Is that because there was a special kind of clientele in Sedalia?
The number of transients - railroad workers, travelling salespeople,
that were in and out - did create some of the demand
but also, apparently, there were quite a number of men
who just sought the services of the ladies.
Rhonda has brought me to a place that she promises
will offer a glimpse into Sedalia's disreputable past.
Rhonda, what den of iniquity have you brought me to?
This is 217 West Main.
It is listed on the National Register Of Historic Places.
When it was listed in 1996,
it was the second brothel to be so recognised.
MICHAEL CHUCKLES Let's go inside.
-Michael, this way.
'Jack Lewis now owns the building.'
This room was a place where the ladies met their clients,
-is that right?
I would say this was the social room.
They would play games, drink, might have had a piano in here.
You know, women sitting on their laps.
-And you've been stripping away the wallpaper, is that right?
-And some people did it long before I did.
-And what have you discovered?
-All of this graffiti?
-Drawings, names, addresses...
Wow. And this will date back to when, do you think?
First date we found was 1874.
And what are the sort of things that they are writing on the wall
-that you can tell me about?
-Old ballads, old poems
from very risque to very colourful.
You know, it refers to the ladies, it refers to the era,
a lot of railroad stuff.
"Bertha, best in the house."
"Josie, the best-looker on Main Street."
Appreciative comments from clients,
railroad workers and others,
who never imagined that their graffiti
would become a matter of historical record.
So, Jack, if you wanted to know the written history of Sedalia,
-read the brothel walls.
-That would work.
Brothels offered more than one sort of entertainment.
Sedalia's red-light district
provided a venue for black musicians to perform.
The town became known as the cradle of a new musical genre...
And its most famous composer was Scott Joplin.
-# Won't you come home, Bill Bailey?
# Won't you come home? #
What a lovely building!
Clearly a former railroad station
of the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad.
And from the "KT" in the middle of those initials, known as Katy.
-# I know I've done you wrong
# Remember that raining evening
# I threw you out
# With nothing but a fine toothcomb
# Yes, I know that I'm to blame
# But ain't that a shame?
# Bill Bailey, won't you please come home?
# Bill Bailey, won't you please come home? #
HE PLAYS ON THE HARMONICA
Oh, I enjoyed that! That gets rid of the blues, doesn't it?
So, is this ragtime?
-And what distinguishes ragtime?
-A combination of overlapping rhythms...
..where a rhythm is given as much attention as the melody.
That's what signifies and characterises ragtime.
And was Scott Joplin really the pioneer of that?
-Pioneer of classic ragtime.
I mean, the genius of Scott Joplin is he fused African American rhythms
with classical European composition.
You could say it was the first authentic
widespread popular American music. Indigenous.
Born in Texas, a young Scott Joplin moved to Sedalia in the 1880s
and enrolled in the George R Smith College for Negroes to study music.
His big break came when the owner of a music store in Sedalia
published his Maple Leaf Rag in 1899.
It sold half a million copies and set off the ragtime craze.
-Hey! You really tickle the ivories.
-Doesn't she swing a mean finger? ALL:
Are you a Sedalia man?
I am. I've lived here for about eight years now.
-Where did you come from before that, then?
-I was born in Boston.
Is there much difference between Massachusetts and Sedalia, Missouri?
Huge difference. In Boston it is such a rat race.
Whereas here...you meet people, you know?
And I love it that you can meet somebody out on the street
and just have a conversation with people.
I'm using a 19th-century guidebook and, at the time,
Sedalia was known as "the Sodom and Gomorrah of Missouri", I think.
-Is it still Sodom and Gomorrah?
-It is not.
Today we have this swathe that we call the Bible Belt
and we're right in the middle of that.
Missouri is really a big part of that.
What does it really mean to be in the Bible Belt?
Generally speaking, it's middle-class America.
It's hard-working, average people.
And they believe in what God has for us.
It's about following a different way of life than our own, er...
And what practical difference does that make
to the way that people behave towards each other?
We love each other. It's all about love.
And does that love extend to people who aren't like you?
Black people, non-Christians, Muslims?
Oh, sure it does, yeah.
Love... Love transcends all, doesn't it?
I will have that thought in mind as I board my train.
Good! Thank you, Mike.
From Sedalia, my journey following in the footsteps of the pioneers
is taking me 84 miles westward
on Amtrak's Missouri River Runner service.
My next stop will be Independence, Missouri,
which Appletons' tells me is
"a neat and thriving town with much business activity".
I wonder what made its wheels go round
before the railroads called into town?
I spotted you, because you are being very jolly. What you are up to?
-Why are you having so much fun?
-We're on our mother-daughter trip.
-And where is your mother-daughter trip taking you?
-To Kansas City.
-Now, I'm doing a journey through history.
-Do you like history?
-I teach history, so...
-You teach it?
-I teach history.
Do you ever think about the old days?
I mean, before the railroads,
what about the wagons and the frontiersmen and the settlers?
I do. I mean, I just think it would be neat to go back in time
and see all of that, just be a part of it.
You'd wear a lot of clothes and you'd be dirty more frequently.
But I think it would be neat to find out.
And once again, ladies and gentlemen,
our next stop is Independence, home to Harry S Truman,
the 33rd President of the United States.
Independence, your stop. Please gather your belongings
and be ready to exit the train. Independence will be next.
That was a great ride. Thank you so much.
This is the house of Harry S Truman.
He didn't have a college education,
he ran a haberdashery business here in Independence.
He became President of the United States.
Took the decision to drop the atom bomb on Japan.
And after the Second World War, with the Marshall plan,
rebuilt Japan and Germany as democracies.
A self-educated man from small-town America
reached the White House
and took decisions that have shaped the world.
That's the American dream.
Before railroads crossed the continent,
Independence, Missouri was the trailhead
for the gruelling and epic 2,000-mile trip west
to Oregon or California.
Pioneers would gather here before setting out into the great unknown.
I'm taking a ride with tour guide Ralph Goldsmith.
Ralph, what is the significance of Independence
in the story of the conquest of the West?
Well, Independence is where the trails began.
The main reason is that Independence was about as far west
as you could get on the Missouri River at that time.
So, for example, in the 1840s,
what sort of people were starting from Independence?
Would they be families or ambitious young men?
A little of both. A little of both.
Horace Greeley said it, "Go west, young man, go west."
If you're ambitious, you know, there are opportunities out there.
They were giving land away free in Oregon.
All you had to do was get there.
Some people would sell everything they had to come here, you know,
to make a new nation here.
Between 1840 and 1860,
around half a million migrants made the journey west on the trails.
The most popular destination was Oregon.
But the discovery of gold in California in 1849
drew tens of thousands to seek their fortune.
-Did you need to have a bit of money to go out west?
You had to buy your oxen and mules and all your supplies.
But you have to understand, it was a wagon train industry here.
Think about it. A thousand wagons leaving town in one month in 1845.
Six animals per wagon.
That's 6,000 head of livestock left this area.
24,000 mule shoes, ox shoes and horseshoes had to go on.
It was incredible. The commerce here was just off the wall.
Right here, where the courthouse is,
is where the Presbyterian and Methodist church
would have gatherings here and pray for the pioneers as they'd leave.
The Episcopal church down here
would actually anoint them, the animals, with holy water.
It was a pretty perilous undertaking.
It was a perilous taking. They were taking their lives in their hands.
Five-and-a-half months from this point, right here.
And they never averaged more than 9 to 15 miles per day.
They called it "seeing the elephant".
You know, you had this vision of what it's going to be like
but, when you get out on the prairie,
there's nothing but prairie grass for thousands of miles.
And you realise, "Holy Moley, what have I got myself into?"
Ralph, I want you to level with me. What are our chances of making it?
400,000 people made that journey.
They claim at least 9% died along the way.
-Died of what?
wagon accidents, cholera.
They claim less than 300 of them
were actually killed by American Indians along the way.
But those people, their courage, their strength, their stamina,
they're the ones who made us a nation
from sea to shining sea.
We had a name for this dream.
We called it "manifest destiny".
Yah! Come on, get 'em up, now!
-Here, you take them for a while.
Let's go west, young man!
At the end of the day,
wagon trains would be drawn into a circle to corral the livestock.
-What's for supper, Keith?
It's your favourite.
I tell you, Keith, it's good.
To many pioneers on the trail, my meal would have seemed like a feast.
Diaries reveal the hardships that they faced.
Virginia Reid Murphy, aged 13, 1846 -
"We could scarcely walk
"and the men had hardly enough strength to procure wood.
"We would drag ourselves through the snow.
"Poor little children were crying with hunger and mothers were crying
"because they had so little to give to their children.
"We now had nothing to eat... but raw hides."
At the time of my Appletons' Guide,
waves of migrants continued to push the American frontier westward,
while others settled.
15 miles south of Independence,
I hope to find out what life was like for them
from Jonathan Klusmeyer, who, along with 150 volunteers...
Thank you. It's so nice to see you.
..runs a living history museum called Missouri Town 1855.
You know, there is such amazing tranquillity here.
I can't believe it. No sound of cars, no sounds of trains.
-It's a very special place, isn't it?
-Absolutely it is.
The town actually never existed.
We actually moved buildings in here
from different parts of western Missouri.
So these buildings have come from somewhere else,
-but they're perfect in their period detail?
These folk, who came to Missouri,
they had not made the trek of 2,000 miles to Oregon or California
but, nonetheless, the conditions they found here were difficult.
They were difficult.
So they found rocky soil, they found tall trees,
they had to clear all of these roots out of the area
and really get the land ready to farm.
So where had they come from?
They were coming from all over the South, primarily.
Until actually you get into the 1850s,
when the Germans and Irish started coming over,
you're getting mainly just Virginians,
people from Tennessee and also Kentucky,
that are trying to escape the higher land prices in the East.
The Homestead Act of 1862
opened up settlement of the Western United States
by allowing any citizen over 21 to claim 160 acres of land.
Those who farmed it successfully for five years would then own it.
Others were drawn to follow, and settlements grew into towns.
The number of such claims approved eventually exceeded 1.5 million.
They tell me this is the very heart of the village.
Who are your clients? What are they coming here for?
Well, pretty much everybody has some business with me one way or another,
but most of the people, of course, are farmers.
So I put tyres on the wagon wheels, shoes for the horse, mule and ox.
And whatever their metal needs are, I pretty much take care of them.
Tell me a bit about how the town works.
I think of people here being self-reliant.
But, actually, I'm getting an impression
that it has to function as a community.
We're really more dependent on one another than you might imagine.
I don't farm, but I still like to eat.
So what I do is, oftentimes,
if people can't afford to pay me outright with cash, we do barter.
And that's, of course, a way of life with us.
Now, I interrupted you. You were making something.
Well, yes, sir. Got a little hook in the fire here.
You want to work it whilst it's still hot.
The old saying, you've got to strike while the iron's hot.
This is where it came from.
I'm making a little curlicue on the end of this.
We don't want this to snag momma's dress
while she's working in the kitchen.
And the next thing that's left
is just to put a twist in it to kind of finish it off.
Why don't you come on over here and try the bellows for a little bit?
-Takes a bit of effort, Mr Bailey.
-Yes, it does.
We're going to bring that out.
Put it with the hook up in the vice.
-Now, take the tongs and get a good grip on the shank itself.
And in this state, it's easy enough to put a little twist in there.
There you go, sir.
A lovely S-hook with twists at either end,
ready for grandma's kitchen.
To encourage western migration,
the Homestead Act even made provision for women and freed slaves
to take over land and begin new lives in the prairies and beyond.
-Good morning, Linda.
-How are Dan and Murphy today?
-Very good, thank you.
They've been very busy ploughing, hauling grain.
And excuse me asking you, it is usual for a woman
to be in control of a couple of huge oxen?
It is not that common but, of course,
in the absence of her husband or any sons,
women of all ages and all generations rise to the occasion
and do what's required of them.
Honestly, what's it like for a woman in 1855 living out here in the West?
Well, it can be rather frightening. It can be very lonely.
But, of course, that makes it all the more enjoyable
when we get to go to church or if we have a quilting bee
-and get together with the other ladies.
Now, next time I get lonesome, I'll think about a quilting bee.
-Could be just the thing.
-It might be just the thing.
-Thank you, Linda.
Railroad companies drove the settlement of the West.
In order to encourage new lines,
the government offered them generous land grants
on either side of their tracks.
They launched a settlement campaign,
offering transport and temporary accommodation,
while families built their own homes.
Communities quickly grew.
OLD-TIME COUNTRY MUSIC
Ma'am, what a privilege.
You are welcome, sir.
you can see the gleaming towers of Kansas City, Missouri,
ten miles away.
But most trains approaching the city today don't carry passengers.
They move America's freight.
Shellee Currier is from the South Kansas and Oklahoma Railroad.
Shellee, I get the impression that Kansas City
must be a very major hub for rail freight.
Where does it rank in the nation?
Yes, Kansas City is the second largest rail hub after Chicago.
But it's first with consideration of tonnage
that travels through the terminal.
As you're seeing above us,
this is considered a container train.
You could have a mix of unit train,
where it's one train carrying one product, such as coal.
Or you could have what's called a manifest train,
100 to 132 railcars,
and it's a mixture of, like, cement or sand or things of that type.
So let's say the average length of a car is 60 feet, 20 yards.
And you've got 100 cars, that's 2,000 yards.
That is more than a mile!
We do have some long trains here, yes.
I get the feeling in Kansas City
we're at the centre of the spider's web. Would that be right?
That is true. Each carrier that's in here,
their network looks a little bit different.
For the Kansas City Southern, for example,
this is their furthest north point,
and then they're travelling down into the Mexico area.
For the Canadian Pacific, this is their furthest west point.
The BN and the Union Pacific,
they have traffic that runs both east and west
and also some lines north and south, as well.
At the time of my guidebook, separate rail companies cooperated
to provide direct services for goods across the United States.
Today, the freight rail network extends to 140,000 miles
and plays a major role in transporting goods.
Shellee, what sort of freight would you be moving on these lines?
Predominantly, we're moving bulk paper
that would be used to manufacture moving boxes and paper plates.
Keith, your job, then, is to pick up goods like this, like paper,
-and take them into the centre of Kansas City.
What will happen to them there?
They switch them between different railroads
and send them on their way out.
So you're the local service. You're picking up and delivering
-to the cross-continental railway?
-That's right. We're the local crew.
This locomotive, how big a train could this haul?
This train is only 2,000 horsepower, so it'll haul about 2,000 tonnes.
-2,000 tonnes? That's still a serious amount.
Every night on this journey,
from my bed I hear the mournful horn of a locomotive.
TRAIN HORN BLARES
It is the soundtrack of the American economy.
The settlers endured months of travel on wagons
that were pulled by oxen or mules
and many of them perished on the way.
The survivors had to clear forest or prairie
to have ground which they could plough.
They had to suffer the heat and the cold and disease.
The next time that I get cross because the car won't start,
or because the Wi-Fi's on the blink,
I'll remind myself that I would never have made a pioneer.
I'll witness the art of the auctioneer.
..learn about the perils of the Pony Express...
"Wanted - young, skinny, wiry fellows,
"willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred."
..and discover the truth about the demise
of one of America's most famous outlaws.
Jesse's not carrying a gun.
Jesse's back is to us. So we're just going to murder him in cold blood.
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.