Clark Carr’s western trip — or, Never ride on a cowcatcher

By Lynn McKeown

Clark E. Carr was one of Galesburg’s leading citizens in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — lawyer, newspaper editor, postmaster, orator, writer and influential in politics and the community.

In 1869 however, when he was 33 years old and not yet an eminent personage — or "the most roly-poly fat man in town," as Carl Sandburg later called him — he went on an eventful western trip. He described the trip in a rather dry but often humorous book, apparently based on public talks or stories he told to friends and published in 1908, entitled My Day and Generation.

Carr was in Omaha, Nebraska, when he met U.S. Senators Richard Yates and W.P."Pitt" Kellogg, who invited him to go with them on a journey to California. They would ride on the newly completed western rail line, the "Golden Spike" connecting east and west having just been driven in Utah a few months earlier. Carr said he would love to go but couldn’t afford the tickets. Later in the day the Senators reappeared with free passes furnished at their request by the railroad. (Then, as now, railroads and other businesses tend to do what they can to keep Senators happy.)

Carr had developed a friendship with Yates during the Civil War years when the latter was Governor of Illinois and the young Galesburger was on his staff, assisting with the mustering of troops. (They were so successful that, at one point, the federal government had to tell them to slow down.) Yates was a colorful character, an effective and popular governor, though with a fondness for alcohol (He was said to be drunk at his inauguration ceremony). Yates’ teenage son Henry was also along on the trip.

Carr seems to have known W.P. Kellogg previously as well. Though he was now a Senator representing Louisiana, Kellogg was originally an Illinoisan. At this time he was what was known as a ‘‘ carpetbagger,’’ a former Louisiana Governor and now Senator for that state, put in place by the dominant Republican Party in the South after the Civil War. Such men have acquired a negative image, but Carr seemed to feel that Kellogg was one of the more able of the group.

The early part of the trip westward from Omaha was mostly uneventful. At one point they saw in the distance Fort McPherson, at this time commanded by Carr’s brother, General E.A. Carr, who had seen much action in the Civil War and also gained renown as an Indian fighter. The first really exciting event for Clark Carr came when they descended the Rockies as the train approached Salt Lake City.

Someone said they would be travelling very slowly — about as fast as a man walking — as they descended the mountains. Carr and another young man were encouraged to take a seat on the "cowcatcher," the small platform at the very front of the locomotive, where they were guaranteed a pleasant ride with a great view.

At first the train did move slowly and the ride was, in fact, pleasant. Then, gradually, there was a change. Soon, instead of walking–speed, the train was moving much quicker, to what Carr estimated was a mile a minute. And they were travelling near the edge of perilous drop–offs and making what seemed dangerously rapid turns at switchbacks.

Even worse, as he held on for dear life to a metal bar near his perch, Carr found himself mesmerized by the iron rails beneath the train, which seemed to be drawing him downward to destruction. He forced himself to look up to the mountain tops. The Bible verse, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help" ran through his head.

Eventually they reached a stop at a little station. As he climbed off the cowcatcher Carr found Kellogg in a rage with Yates, who, under the influence of "artificial stimulants" (alcohol, no doubt), had bribed the engineer to go much faster than the usual slow speed. As Yates was called various names, "of which fool, idiot, lunatic, were among the mildest," by the irate Kellogg, the mischievous ex-governor claimed he had forgotten the two younger men riding on the front of the locomotive.

The group travelled on to what was then the Utah Territory and what turned out to be one of the most important, though also most bizarre episodes of the whole trip. The Mormons, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, had come to Salt Lake City twenty-three years earlier from their previous home at Nauvoo, Illinois after the murder of their leader Joseph Smith. They had been a highly controversial, distrusted group while in Illinois and that was still true.

Carr and his group, however, were impressed by Salt Lake City. They noticed neat buildings, well-tended orchards, and irrigation streams of clear mountain water. They were also aware of some quite unusual features of the society. They were told that the two young women who waited on them in their boarding house were both wives of the landlord, while an older wife was a virtual prisoner in an upstairs room.

A few days after they arrived, Carr and the Senators were paid a visit by the famous current Mormon leader, Brigham Young, and a group of his "apostles." It was a pleasant meeting, and a few days later the Illinois band paid a return visit to Young at his home, the "Lion House," where he lived with his several wives. Here they were in for a surprise.

The Mormon group (all men) were seated on one side of a room, the Illinois group on the other. At first there was just pleasant conversation, with Yates (apparently quite sober on this occasion) praising the locals for the advanced state of their town and agriculture. Then Young launched into a lengthy speech in which he complained "bitterly" about Utah’s treatment by the U.S. government, which, in spite of the Mormon’s advanced civilization, was resisting attempts to have the Utah Territory admitted as a state in the union. They hoped the senators, especially Yates, would come to their aid.

Carr says he had never seen the former Illinois governor more surprised and "taken aback.’’ But Yates rose to the occasion, in effect telling the Mormons they were deluding themselves. There was the matter of the "Mountain Meadow Massacre," in which some Mormons had reportedly aided Indians in the murder of 140 travellers. More importantly, there was the matter of plural marriage or polygamy. Congress had passed a law in 1862 making it a crime, but it was still condoned by the Mormons in the Utah Territory.

Young replied that, under the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, they should be free to follow what they believed to be a religiously sanctioned practice, and anyone could see that the moral rules of the Ten Commandments were scrupulously observed in Utah.

Carr says it was all very polite but obviously wasn’t going anywhere. Yates told Young that the Illinoisans had only intended a social call, but Mormons could expect opposition to their statehood desires as long as they practiced polygamy, which was offensive to most of the American public. Carr says they never even approached the topic of the church hierarchy’s obvious authoritarian control of the Territory, which would have been "too delicate." There is a footnote in Carr’s narrative noting that the Latter-day Saints finally banned polygamy in 1890 (Brigham Young having died in 1877) and that Utah was admitted as a state in 1896.

The Illinois group proceeded on their journey toward California, now joined by U.S. Senators Justin Morrill of Vermont, Carl Schurz of Missouri and James Nye of Nevada. The rest of the journey to San Francisco was fairly uneventful. Carr found California to be a beautiful and appealing place and describes it in glowing terms. He also found it to be somewhat bewildering for a small–towner from the Midwest, which its mix of ethnic and racial groups.

The Senators and their party were treated royally by the Californians, who were experiencing a boom brought on by the discovery of gold in 1849. The legendary San Francisco banker "Billy" Ralston treated them to a feast at his palatial home in nearby Belmont, where they were accompanied by former Galesburger General David Colton, who had come to California in 1849 and become quite wealthy.

Before they ended their trip, Carr and Yates’ son Henry made a side trip with a couple from Davenport, Iowa to the area that would in later years become Yosemite National Park. This was the Victorian Age, of course, and an embarrassing incident happened one night in the redwood country. The small cabin where they all slept was divided only by a muslin sheet, and when Carr, grandson of a Baptist minister, got onto his cot he found himself bumping into Mrs. True, the one woman in the group, on the other side of the muslin. "I made a hasty retreat, expecting her to scream. So far from that, she broke out into peals of laughter and we all enjoyed the joke, Mr. True more than any other." Carr moved his cot away from the muslin and they all "had a good night’s sleep."

As the group came to the rim of Yosemite Valley, Carr gives a description, in the fulsome style of the time, of the beauties of the region. By modern standards, his style would be considered overblown, but it was true to the romantic attitude toward nature of the nineteenth century, and Carr was an adept writer.

Carr and his friends travelled to the floor of the canyon by the only way available at that time — single file on horseback on a steep, narrow trail. They spent four days on the canyon floor, almost alone (compared to the mobs of tourists that will be found there in modern times). Carr found the experience very moving and compared the valley to "a mighty cathedral."

When Carr got back to San Francisco, he and Henry Yates found that Senators Yates and Kellogg had already left for home. The two younger men soon followed. Carr, in his book, gives no details of the apparently uneventful return trip. Presumably there were no more rides on the cowcatcher.

In later years Clark Carr had more dealings with railroads. He is credited with being one of the Galesburgers who persuaded the Santa Fe Railroad to come through the town. (His father, Clark M. Carr, had been involved with the building of what became the CB&Q.) Richard Yates was also involved with railroads, taking a job as a U.S. railroad commissioner in 1873, but dying later the same year at the age of 55.

Clark E. Carr had a varied career, including being appointed minister to Denmark by President Benjamin Harrison, a post he held from 1889 to 1893. Carl Sandburg was Carr’s paper boy for a time, and the house where Sandburg delivered the paper can still be seen on Prairie Street in Galesburg. The roly-poly lawyer-editor-politician wrote a number of books, including one on his experience witnessing Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. Another, called The Illini, is a historical novel set in western Illinois during Civil War times. This article on Carr’s western trip is based on the first chapter in his book My Day and Generation. Carr died in 1919 at the age of 83.