T is for George Francis Train

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten.

George Francis Train was an American entrepreneur, political activist and as an eccentric globetrotter possibly the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.

Train was born in Boston in 1829, the son of Oliver Train, but both his parents and his three sisters died in a yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans when he was just four years old.

Back in Boston, Train was raised by his strict Methodist grandparents who hoped that he would enter the ministry, but the young Train had other ideas and aged sixteen he worked in Boston and Liverpool with the White Diamond Line of Enoch Train, his father’s cousin.

In 1851, he married Wilhelmina Wilkinson Davis, a true Southern belle, and two years later they arrived in Melbourne among the many American merchants attracted by the Australian gold rushes. There he established a successful import business bringing in everything from guns and flour to patent medicines and mining tools.

Train’s company traded until 1858 when he rejoined his wife in America, she having returned there for the birth of their daughter in 1854. He did so via the Orient and the Middle East and in 1857 his many letters to newspapers at home were published as An American Merchant in Europe, Asia, and Australia which was so successful that he was sent to Europe to report on social and economic conditions.

Birkenhead Tramway by GS ‘Sid’ Cooper

Train became interested in the development of transport systems and in 1860 he established Europe’s first tramway system in Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula in north-west England. The trams were horse-drawn on rails laid existing roads which Train promised to return them to their original condition if the scheme was unsuccessful. Fortunately, the tramway proved to be very popular and ran until 1937 when the trams were replaced by petrol-engined buses.

Other projects were not so successful. Similar schemes in Ireland and Darlington in north-east England were short-lived and in 1861 Train was arrested for ‘breaking and injuring’ a street in London. The problem was that the rails for the tramways were raised above street level which caused an obstruction for other traffic.

Returning to America, Train was involved in setting up the Union Pacific Railroad during Civil War in 1864, constructing the eastern portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and travelled back to Europe that same year where he wrote and spoke extensively in support of the Union cause. He also became involved in shipping and organised the clipper ship line that sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco.

Styling himself as Citizen Train, he claimed that he was a confidant of French and Australian revolutionaries and that he had even been offered and declined the presidency of a proposed Australian republic. But he began to have political ambitions and in 1870 he began his campaign to stand as an independent in the 1872 presidential election.

However, in the middle of his campaign, Train decided that he would take a trip around the globe. Such was the popularity as a writer that this was covered by many newspapers of the day and during a two-month stay in France, he was jailed for supporting the Paris Commune and was only released following the intervention of the US government and Alexandre Dumas.

During the trip, Train met the Queen of Spain and persuaded her to back the construction of a railway in the backwoods of Pennsylvania and she provided the funding for the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad. He also built further tramways in Britain, although this time he ran the rails at street level.

Other than the two-month stay in Europe, Train’s travelling time was indeed eighty days and it is entirely possible that Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg was at least partly based on Train’s exploits.

Returning to the US, Train’s fame and popularity preceded him and he made a fortune from land as the railway opened up huge swathes of western America. He even established Train Town in Omaha.

He returned to the presidential campaign trail in 1872 but his chances were not helped when it emerged that much of his fortune was based on some rather shady financial dealings. He was the primary financier of the newspaper The Revolution, which was dedicated to women’s rights.

It was about this time that Train’s behaviour became more and more erratic. He stood for the position of Dictator of the United States and drew record crowds despite charged admission fees to his campaign rallies He became a vegetarian and adopted various fads in succession, for example, instead of shaking hands with other people, he shook hands with himself, the manner of greeting he had seen in China.

In 1890, he was prompted to take yet another trip around the globe setting a new record of 67 days 12 hours and 1 minute, one that he broke two years later, completing the journey in just sixty days.

Train was a member of the Thirteen Club set-up in 1880s to debunk the superstition that when thirteen people sit at the dinner table, one will die that year. The club numbered five presidents in its 400 membership that met on 13th of the month and when Train died in 1904 they passed a resolution that he was one of the few sane men in a mad, mad world.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

7 comments… Add yours
  • zongrik 24th May 2017

    imagine what someone like that would do with drones, nanotech and 3D printers

  • Melody Steenkamp 24th May 2017

    Sometimes I think… the more intelligence a person has the weirder their actions (can) get…

    Have a nice ABC-day / week
    Melody (team ABC-W)
    Preview Round 21 starting july 12th :

  • Roger Green 25th May 2017

    What an appropriate name for a traveler!

  • Yorkshire Pudding 26th May 2017

    It is funny that a man who developed an interest in trains was called Train. I guess that with your surname you used to lay tarmac! Take me home country Rhodes!

  • Trevor Rowley 26th May 2017

    Goodness knows what John Selwyn Gummer was allowed to get up to in his spare time! Oooohh, matron!

  • Joy 27th May 2017

    What a whirlwind of a man.

  • bettyl - NZ 28th May 2017

    The things I learn on the internet!! Great, informative article.


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