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emigrant car

Emigrant – one who removes his habitation, or quits one country or region to settle in another. / Immigrant – one tho immigrates; one who removes into a country for the purpose of permanent residence, as opposed to emigrant. — Webster, 1882

There are 1600 cars of emigrant goods between Iroquois and Winona, Minnesota, bound for Dakota. — Iroquois (Dakota Territory) Herald, March 30, 1883.

noteI can’t remember a single time when I’ve written something about emigrants or immigrants / emigration or immigration, and I didn’t stop to look up the definitions to make sure I used the correct word.

You emigrate from one country and immigrate to another country. You use the word that relates to the point of view of your subject, whether you are talking about the country of origin or the country of destination.

When Eliza and Thomas Power sailed on the Dreadnaught, they were emigrants, emigrating from England; they were also immigrants, immigrating to America. Yes, the Powers were Irish, but they left from England to come to America, so they had emigrated from Ireland to England first. Once they landed in New York and were settled in Tuscarora (where Mary Power was born), they were English immigrants according to their neighbors, because they had been living in England earlier but were now in New York. To their friends back in England, the Powers were still emigrants.

Even if you try to remember that people “emigrate from” (e in emigrate means “out of”) and “immigrate to,” (i in immigrate means “into”), it’s still confusing, since people can be both an emigrant and an immigrant, depending on context. To migrate is to go from one region, country, or place of abode to settle in another, from the Latin migrāre, meaning to change one’s abode. To grate means to get on one’s nerves, which this discussion is probably starting to do, but has nothing to do with emigration.

Thankfully, Laura Ingalls Wilder never mentioned emigrants or immigrants in the original eight Little House books. In The Long Winter (Chapter 31, “Waiting for the Train”), however, she does mention the railroad emigrant car that is one of the cars on the first train into De Smet after the Hard Winter. She is referring to the train that was snowed in all winter, apparently made up of only three freight cars: one full of telegraph poles, one of farm machinery, and one emigrant car. Mr. Woodworth is prevailed upon to break into the car and “share out what eatables he could find.”

So what exactly was an emigrant car?

Turns out, there were multiple types of emigrant cars. One was a third-class passenger coach, cheaply fitted out without plush and spring seats, fancy luggage racks, or specialty woodwork, but in other ways similar to the first-class passenger car. There were emigrant car fitted out for sleeping as well, in which two seats faced each other and a board beneath each seat could be pulled out to meet and form a platform on which to sleep. Passengers used their own bedding. Still other emigrant sleeping-cars had flip down platforms above the seats to provide additional sleeping space. Although Wilder described plush seats, shining woodwork, and a fancy watering alcove in their railroad car in By the Shores of Silver Lake, she wrote in a letter to daughter Rose Wilder Lane that the railroad car they traveled in was a day coach and definitely not fancy or elegant.


Railroad Passenger Day Coach Cross-Section. The emigrant car from The Long Winter was merely a railroad box-car in which a person’s household goods – or “emigrant movables” – were transported. This meant anything that was needed for personal use in order to set up a household, including farm machinery, wagons, buggies, trees and shrubbery, lumber or portable buildings, stoves, and cookware. An emigrant car could even carry livestock, plus food and water to be consumed by the animals while in transit. If livestock was carried, someone was allowed to ride in the car to take care of them. When the Wilder family moved from New York to Minnesota, Royal and Almanzo supposedly rode with the horses they took with them. Groceries were also allowed, luckily for the hungry people of De Smet after the Hard Winter!


Railroad Boxcar Cross-Section. There were detailed lists outlining what was considered “third class” or “emigrant class.” Fancy goods were considered a higher class and therefore cost more to ship. For example, crockery dishes could be moved at a lower cost than fancy chinaware. Items to be sold were not allowed on emigrant cars, but must be shipped at a higher rate.

The cost to rent an emigrant car from Chicago to Tracy was $45.00 plus a little over a dollar per 100 pounds of freight at the time of By the Shores of Silver Lake. Passenger rate was about $15 per person for the same distance.


emigrant (PG)
     emigrant car (TLW 23; PG)