Under the Snow, Politics Flourishes

Photograph, Union Pacific Trains Snowbound in Laramie Plains, Winter, 1869-70

Photograph, Union Pacific Trains Snowbound in Laramie Plains, Winter, 1869-70

The original caption to this photograph taken near Cooper Lake, Wyoming, reads, “Six Passenger Trains Snowed in on the Laramie Plains. Union Pacific Railway, Winter of 1869-70.” Passengers were snowed in for weeks. Grenville Dodge, the engineer who surveyed and set this route for the new Transcontinental Railroad, opined, “Probably that winter’s experience with snow was the worst the Union Pacific has ever experienced.”

Maybe so, but stories survive from a major snow event on the railroad two years later, and this time, record experiences of passengers. In late December and early January 1871-72, the Union Pacific stranded eight hundred passengers in Wyoming along the same stretch and further east, between Laramie and Cheyenne. The names of a dozen or more passengers are known. Reporters collected their stories at Chicago, and one of them kept her diary on the trip. Perhaps theirs was not “the worst” winter mishap on the Union Pacific, but, arguably, theirs had the greater impact on American history. Friendships and alliances to last lifetimes sprang up, and snow shaped the fight for woman suffrage.

Cast of Characters

In the week before Christmas, Congressman Aaron Sargent, returning to Washington from his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, procured a Pullman car for himself, his wife, and their three children. Sargent was, politically speaking, a railroad man; he wrote the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 during his first term in Congress, and the corporations that built and operated the transcontinental line knew him as a useful friend. When he moved from the House to the Senate in 1873, he became known as the “Senator for the Southern Pacific Railroad.” Ellen Clark Sargent, his wife, had made a name for herself as a woman suffragist in California. When she reached Washington, she became a resident lobbyist, organizer, and treasurer for the National Woman Suffrage Association. Ella, Lizzie, and George, the children, were seventeen, fourteen, and eleven.

Aaron A. Sargent, Member of Congress from California, c. 1862, Matthew Brady's Studio, National Archives

Aaron A. Sargent, Member of Congress from California, c. 1862, Matthew Brady’s Studio, National Archives

The Sargents invited their new acquaintance, Susan B. Anthony, to share the Pullman car. At the end of a six-month speaking tour on the West Coast, she too needed to reach Washington.  Anthony caught up with her hosts on December 27 at Ogden, Utah.

Susan B. Anthony, 1871. Napoleon Sarony, Library of Congress

Susan B. Anthony, 1871. Napoleon Sarony, Library of Congress

On Board the Union Pacific

Susan Anthony did not describe the car she boarded, but she noted that the Sargents and their guests were its sole occupants. The family had an impressive supply of food at hand and the means to cook it. On New Year’s Day, they enjoyed “Roast Turkey, bread & Jelly, spice cake & excellent cup of tea,” according to Anthony’s diary. The next day they supplemented leftovers with dried salmon and crackers, emergency rations provided by the railroad. As Anthony noted more than once, the congressman helped out with the chores. Waking up on her first morning, while the train sat just east of Washakie, she enjoyed “Breakfast at 9.30–Mr. S. Making the tea–& serving as Steward generally.”

Domestic comfort could not mask their situation indefinitely. After one week on the train, Susan Anthony strained to find an upside to her experience:

This is indeed a fearful ordeal–fastened here in these snow banks mid way the continent–at the very highest point of Rocky Mountains fully 8,000 feet above level of the sea–snow melted for Engine Boiler & Car water tanks– Passengers furnished with Soda crackers & dried fish–a train loaded with Coal behind us–hence no danger of actual suffering.

Detail, Ogden to Cheyenne, Map of Union Pacific Railway, 1882, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

Detail, Ogden to Cheyenne, Map of Union Pacific Railway, 1882, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

In early days of the journey, snow blocked trains ahead of theirs. The Sargents’ car left Ogden on December 28. In the next four days, they waited hours for an “extra engine to take us up the grade”; they “crawled along to Percy–then delayed all night for trains ahead.” By the time they reached Medicine Bow, four passenger trains were crowded together at a full stop. They had caught up with the snow. Two hundred men shoveled the track, and after a day and a night, the train crossed the Laramie Plains “through deep Snow cuts ten miles in length.” They reached Laramie on New Year’s Eve.

It took three days to make the climb from Laramie to the high point at Sherman. A “tremendous wind” blew snow back on the tracks, and twice the train parked in a snow shed for hours. These celebrated structures shielded trains from avalanches and drifts but added to the woes of passengers. “Train drawn under a long snow-shed & hence very close,” Anthony wrote on January 2, “almost suffocating taking smoke of Engine & rare atmosphere together.”

Train in Snow Shed. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 44 (1872): 880.

Train in Snow Shed. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 44 (1872): 880.

An impromptu community grew up around the trains. Passengers learned who rode their own and nearby trains. Two sons of the financial journalist David M. Mellis, who had known Susan Anthony in New York, heard that she was in the train behind them and walked back to visit on January 3. Anthony returned their call the next day. John Hipple Mitchell of Oregon, a lawyer, Republican politician, and generally colorful character, rode in the car just forward of the Sargents. He joined Aaron Sargent on a seven mile hike through the snow to Sherman, and he talked law and politics with Susan Anthony.

At last, the party reached Cheyenne on January 5, and “at 1.30–Train was off–& at first class speed–& oh what joy in all faces.” It had taken their train ten days to travel 500 miles from Ogden.  They covered the next 500 in a day.  At Council Bluffs, Iowa, the Union Pacific handed off its problems to the North Western Railway, and the cars of six trains were joined together for a slow and cumbersome last stretch into Chicago on January 8.

Politics, Snow, and Friendships

Politicians talk politics. On this trip, their politics included a hefty dose of women’s rights. At Laramie, where the women of Wyoming had been voting for a year, Anthony and the Sargents were briefed by a local editor on the legislature’s attempt in December to take away that right. Only a veto by the governor killed the bill to disfranchise women. At Cheyenne, they met with the governor himself.

As soon as she boarded the train, Anthony tried to convert Aaron Sargent to her view that the Constitution, without amendment, guaranteed women’s right to vote. “Women are persons–hence citizens–hence voters,” she told audiences on her tour. It was a view with growing appeal among lawyers, a few congressman, and lots of local officials. On that first day, Anthony admitted to her diary, “Mr Sargent not quite convinced as to women being voters under the Constitution as it is.”

Though Sargent doubted Anthony’s constitutional argument about voting rights, it was a disagreement over tactics. Aaron Sargent became the most important advocate of women’s rights in the Senate, fighting between 1873 and 1879 for equal pay in federal employment, the right of women to practice law in federal courts, and their right to vote. In 1878, he introduced the constitutional amendment for woman suffrage that was adopted decades later. The whole family stayed in the fight. When the men of California went to the polls in 1896 to decide if the state’s women would vote, Ellen Sargent, by then a widow, and all three children campaigned for the cause.

John H. Mitchell won election later in 1872 to the Senate and served his first term alongside Aaron Sargent as a dependable vote for women’s rights. When the Senate debated the constitutional amendment for woman suffrage for the first time in 1887, Mitchell was there to vote aye. He was also a familiar face in 1902, when Anthony led a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Woman Suffrage. The committee’s stenographer reported this exchange.

Miss Anthony. . . . . Senator Mitchell here is an old war horse. I traveled with him thirty-nine years ago over the Union Pacific, and we were snowed in together for nine days. (Laughter.)

Senator Mitchell. We got pretty well acquainted then, did we not?

Miss Anthony. Yes; and you have been a good suffrage man ever since.

Senator Mitchell. You made one convert.

Miss Anthony. Yes; and there were several others. A man came to me at the hotel the other night, who was with us on that trip, who remembered the trials we had.



#  Grenville M. Dodge, How We Built the Union Pacific Railway and Other Railway Papers and Addresses, 22 March 1910, 61st Cong. , 2d sess., Sen. Doc. 447, photograph facing p. 37.

#  Susan B. Anthony’s diaries for 1871 & 1872 are in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Chicago Tribune, 9 January 1872.

Woman Suffrage. Hearing before the Select Committee on Woman Suffrage, United States Senate, on the Joint Resolution (S.R. 53) Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Extending the Right of Suffrage to Women (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1902), 3-4.

#  To set the details in context, check out Against an Aristocracy of Sex, 1866 to 1873, vol. 2 of Selected Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, ed. Ann D. Gordon, et al. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000).

About Ann D. Gordon

Editor, Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony. Research Professor Emerita, Department of History, Rutgers University. Union activist & secular feminist.
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