What do Isabella Bird and Michael Portillo have in common?  They are both Honorary Fellows of RSGS, and they both travelled on the US Transcontinental Railroad through California - albeit 145 years apart…

The other night I caught the last part of one of Michael Portillo’s ‘Great American Railroad Journeys’, in which he travels over the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.  He takes the Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869 and connected the vast breadth of the US from east to west.  He says:  “The importance of the Transcontinental Railroad cannot be overstated.  Suddenly the gold of California, the industry of the Midwest, the cattle of the south and south-west and the bankers of New York were brought together in one vast economy whose energy and enterprise eclipsed the rest of the world.”

Michael Portillo

Michael visits a mountain town called Truckee, and tells us that in the 1860s it was an important stop on the Central Pacific Railroad, which was the western stretch of the Transcontinental line.  Something about the name made me think of Isabella Bird, so I had to go and look it up.  And yes - one night in September 1873 she rolled up in Truckee, stepping out of her train carriage and straight into the Truckee Hotel, whose saloon was full of rowdy, gun-toting lumberjacks.  

Isabella Bird, from ‘The Life of Isabella Bird’ by Anna M Stoddart (1906)

At that time, the population of Truckee was dominated by men;  in summer they were employed in timber felling, which was taking place on a massive scale, and in winter they harvested ice from lakes and rivers.  At a time when refrigeration was still a thing of the future, huge quantities of this precious commodity were whisked away by railroad, either to wealthy consumers in San Francisco, or packed around California’s fruit and vegetables, bound for markets in New York.  Ice was also used to refresh miners sweltering in the tunnels of Nevada’s silver mines. 

Truckee station c.1869, courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

But at 11.30 at night, Isabella was not interested in the career history of the revellers at the bar.  They looked like a bunch of ruffians, and realising that she was the only woman present, she took refuge in the parlour.  She’d eaten nothing since six that morning, and once she’d secured herself a room she asked if she could have a hot meal.  It was far too late, she was told;  but she was brought a cup of weak tea and a small piece of buttered bread, which looked as if it had seen better days. 

Isabella settled down in an untidy bedroom and went to sleep, despite the noise from the bar,  but in the night she was woken by three gunshots in rapid succession.  Next morning, she was (unsurprisingly) almost the only person up and about.  She packed a few essentials in a bag, slipped on her Hawaiian riding-dress, threw a cloak over her shoulders and headed for the stables, where she set about hiring a horse.

Isabella’s Hawaiian riding-dress was her own clever invention, inspired by the costume of women riders she’d seen in Hawaii, and adapted to disguise the fact that she rode ‘cavalier fashion’, in other words astride a horse.  In the late 1800s, women were expected to ride side-saddle, but Isabella was an accomplished horsewoman and she liked to be comfortable while she was galloping.  The man in charge of the stables threw a silver-embossed Mexican saddle over a large grey horse and she was up before he could help her.  Despite her doubts, he watched with no sign of disapproval.  “Ride your own fashion,” he advised her. “Here, at Truckee, if anywhere in the world, people can do as they like.” 

Truckee lies at nearly 6,000 feet, and as she rode, Isabella rejoiced in the clear sky and brilliant sunshine;  California, she noticed, possessed “an elasticity in the air which removes all lassitude, and gives one spirit enough for anything.”  Leaving the shacks and timber stores behind, she struck south along a dusty wagon path towards Lake Tahoe. 

Truckee River, Tahoe National Forest

In her book, ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’, Isabella credits a cryptically-named ‘Mr G’ with persuading her to break her long journey from San Francisco to Colorado by staying a few nights in Truckee in order to visit its picturesque lakes.  An equally mysterious ‘Mr W’ had warned her that all the rough characters of the district congregated in Truckee, and that there were shootings every night in the bar rooms.  This didn’t deter her in the slightest.  (Only when she got to the Rocky Mountains did she start carrying a revolver.)

Around her rose a forest of gigantic pine trees, and through them she glimpsed towering snow-capped mountains.  Along the track she met three young men with a wagon drawn by oxen, no doubt destined for the railway, and a little while further on she stopped to adjust her stirrup.  At that moment a grizzly bear crashed out of the undergrowth in front of her, causing her horse to rear and plunge violently.  Knowing she would be thrown off, Isabella threw herself expertly onto a piece of rising ground which broke her fall;  she got up unhurt but thoroughly annoyed to see her horse cantering off down the track. 

The bear disappeared, perhaps sensing that Isabella was a force to be reckoned with.  She picked up her things and followed in the wake of her horse, which had headed back towards Truckee.  After a hot and tiring walk she found that the men with the ox-team had caught it and were just about to go in search of her, imagining that she’d had an accident.  Isabella gratefully accepted some cold water to wash her face, and then with characteristic grit, she re-mounted the horse and turned him back towards Lake Tahoe, releasing his fidgets by taking him for a long gallop past the place where the bear had appeared.

Lake Tahoe, North America’s largest alpine lake, lies about 12 miles south of Truckee 

Lake Tahoe turned out to be everything Isabella hoped it would be.  She wrote:  “I have found a dream of beauty at which one might look all one’s life and sigh… the mountain-girdled lake lay before me, with its margin broken up into bays and promontories, most picturesquely clothed by huge sugar-pines.  It lay dimpling and scintillating beneath the noonday sun…”

There was a ramshackle inn on the lake shore, and Isabella stayed there for the night, writing a letter to her sister and watching the water turn glorious shades of indigo, red and orange in the light of the setting sun.  As the night grew cold, people clustered around the parlour stove, where Isabella, herself no respecter of the rules, was nevertheless slightly shocked by the behaviour of a fellow guest:  “A San Francisco lady, much ‘got up’ in paint, emerald green velvet, Brussels lace, and diamonds, rattled continuously for the amusement of the company, giving descriptions of persons and scenes in a racy Western twang, without the slightest scruple as to what she said.”

Next morning, as Isabella was riding back to Truckee, a female grizzly with two cubs crossed the track in front of her, but this time she stayed on the horse even though it snorted and reared.  It seemed that word of her exploits had spread overnight:  a hunter, armed with a rifle, stopped to ask if she was the English tourist who had ‘happened’ on a grizzly the day before, and a lumberjack, with whom she exchanged polite greetings, gathered her a small posy of mountain flowers.

View over Truckee c.1890, courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

Picking her way through the back streets of Truckee, Isabella returned her horse to the stable.  She was due to leave on the 11 pm train, but there were still plenty of hours left in the day and she wanted to visit Donner Lake, a few miles to the west.  Another horse was offered to her, this one seventeen hands high.  Isabella was barely five feet tall, and she had to stand on a barrel before she could get her foot in the stirrup;  her feet only reached half-way down his sides, but there was no question about her ability to handle him.  

The owner of the stables, who must have been in awe of Isabella by this time, was attentive and anxious for her to enjoy her next ride.  As she chatted to him, she remembered - somewhat belatedly - a story she’d heard, of a man having ridden through Truckee two evenings before with a chopped-up human body in a sack behind the saddle.  Were there, she asked, any dangers involved in staying out alone until evening?  His reply was emphatic:  “There’s a bad breed of ruffians, but the ugliest among them all won’t touch you.  There’s nothing Western folk admire so much as pluck in a woman.”

Needless to say, Isabella made a successful excursion to Donner Lake and galloped back in time to catch her train, which stopped outside the Truckee Hotel.  Promptly at 11 pm she stepped into a carpeted sleeping-carriage and was soon relaxing between linen sheets in the luxurious privacy of a curtained bed.  As the train sped eastwards, the Sierra Nevada mountains receded into the frosty night and Isabella gave herself up to sleep, little knowing what adventures - both physical and emotional - awaited her in the snow-bound valleys of the Rocky Mountains.

Central Pacific Railroad through the Sierra Nevada, depicting ‘snow-sheds’ and some of the Chinese workmen who helped build the railway.  Drawing by J Becker, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 1870

With many thanks to Heidi Sproat of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, who gave kind permission to include two images from their archive.  https://www.truckeehistory.org/



In his TV programme, Michael Portillo carries with him a copy of ‘Appleton’s General Guide to the United States and Canada’, first published in 1879 and therefore a few years too late for Isabella Bird.  She carried - or, at least, quotes from - ‘Nelson’s Guide to the Central Pacific Railroad’, published in the early 1870s.

At Colfax, where Michael tests his own skills of horsemanship, Isabella got out and walked the length of her train.  It was pulled by two engines, their tenders loaded with wood, and after these came baggage and mail cars, two carriages with fresh produce, two sleeping cars, a smoking-car and five passenger cars;  in all, it was about 700 feet long.  The train hauled itself over flimsy-looking trestle bridges spanning deep ravines, and disappeared into long ‘snow-sheds’ - stretches of track that were enclosed in wooden galleries, to protect against winter snowdrifts.  At night she described the glare from its ‘cyclopean eye’ - the huge spotlight mounted on the engine.

Michael Portillo was awarded Honorary Fellowship of RSGS in 2018.  Quote is from Series 3, Episode 11 of ‘Great American Railroad Journeys’ (Reno, Nevada to Colfax, California, first aired in 2018).   Available on BBC iPlayer until late August:  https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09rhs33

Isabella Bird was awarded Honorary Fellowship of RSGS in 1890, the first woman to receive the honour.   Quotes are from her book, ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’ (1879).   This blog post describes some of her adventures in Estes Park, Colorado:  https://www.rsgs.org/blog/isabella-bird-living-with-the-cowboys-of-americas-wild-west