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Oscar Wilde In America

a selected resource of oscar wilde's visits to america

—The further West one comes,

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Journey to California

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The relative locations of Oakland and San Francisco, separated by the San Francisco Bay.

Connecting the bay to the ocean is the Golden Gate—a strait not yet spanned by the now famous bridge (opened 1937).

In 1882 the only method of traversing the land masses was by ferry-boat.

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The Overland Railroad office in the Palace Hotel, San Francisco, CA

Oscar Wilde's Journey To California

Oscar Wilde's train journey to California is a significant event in his lecture tour of America as it constituted his longest period of continuous traveling—4 days and 4 nights—incorporating some 1867 miles and over 200 station stops. It was, as might be imagined with Oscar Wilde on board, a journey that was not without several incidents and experiences.

Omaha: Point of Departure

Oscar Wilde's first tour of the Midwest was scheduled to conclude with a lecture in Omaha, NE, as this was a major point of departure for the train journey to California, where a series of a ten lectures had been arranged for him. Oscar Wilde departed on March 22, 1882, i.e. the day following his lecture in Omaha.

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The Omaha Daily Bee, March 23, 1882, p.1

The Railroad

Wilde traveled from the Midwest to California by what was known as The Overland Route — a train line operated jointly by the Union Pacific Railroad, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad, between Council Bluffs, IA / Omaha, NE and San Francisco, CA.

The route lay over the grade of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which first opened when the ceremonial final spike was driven by Leland Stanford connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads on May 10. 1869.

Source: Wikipedia

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On Board

There were no dining cars on Wilde's train journey to California—inexpensive meals were offered at selected stops en route, usually at station hotels where it was also possible to purchase magazines and newspapers, or to mail letters.

Other than the passenger meal stops, Wilde did not break his journey—and he slept all four nights on the train. He did, however, have the best of the sleeping accommodation, traveling First Class (at a cost of $100) in a one of the railroads' Palace Cars.

Union Pacific

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The Union Pacific line began at Council Bluffs, IA / Omaha, NE (Union Depot, pictured).

Connecting trains to Omaha arrived from Boston, New York, Chicago, and St.Louis (see timetable).

en route

Below is a selection of incidents and ephemera from Wilde's journey to California, listed alongside the station stops on the timetable opposite where relevant.

Fremont, NE

Wilde's presence in America captured public imagination engendering a widespread curiosity. Crowds gathered along the line and at stations to see him in aesthetic dress that included his famous knee breeches. The Fremont press alluded imaginatively to Wilde's lower legs:

milk-calves

Pirates On Board

Traveling the route on the train were boys selling various goods including food and newspapers. In his essay Impressions of America, Wilde recounted the experience of being offered his own poems for sale in pirated editions.

Perhaps the most beautiful part of America is the West, to reach which, however, involves a journey by rail of six days, racing along tied to an ugly tin-kettle of a steam engine. I found but poor consolation for this journey in the fact that the boys who infest the cars and sell everything that one can eat - or should not eat - were selling editions of my poems vilely printed on a kind of grey blotting paper, for the low price of ten cents. Calling these boys on one side I told them that though poets like to be popular they desire to be paid, and selling editions of my poems without giving me a profit is dealing a blow at literature which must have a disastrous effect on poetical aspirants. The invariable reply that they made was that they themselves made a profit out of the transaction and that was all they cared about.

Impressions of America, lecture notes 1883, published 1906

Sherman, WY

At 8,247 feet (2,514 m) Sherman Hill near Laramie was the highest point on the transcontinental railroad.

The small town of Sherman arose north of the tracks where trains stopped to change locomotives before beginning the long descent either east towards Cheyenne or west across the 130 feet (40 m) high Dale Creek Bridge to the Laramie Valley.

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The stop provided a roundhouse with five stalls and a turntable, two section houses, and a windmill with water tank.

In 1882, Sherman had a population of 55, and although the town grew to several hundred, it is now deserted and no structures are extant except for the nearby Ames Monument, a large pyramid designed by noted American architect H. H. Richardson, built to mark the highpoint of the line, and as a lasting tribute to the Ames brothers, financiers to the Union Pacific Railroad.

Impostor On Board

John Howson, the actor who was playing the part of the Wildean character Bunthorne in Patience, was a traveling companion of Wilde's on the train, and he occasionally fooled onlookers with his imitation.

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The Record-Union (Sacramento, California) March, 27 1882, 3

Ogden, UT

Wilde arrived at Ogden on the evening of March 24, 1882, and was informed of the death that day of the American poet Longfellow, with whom he had breakfasted when in Boston, two months earlier.

The Mormon town of Ogden, UT was a railroad hub and the terminal point and junction of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads.

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Corinne, UT

A band of Wilde imitators 'grotesquely accoutered' assembled on the platform at Corinne and sought to invade his car.

Wilde said when he returned to New York in May that satire is the homage which mediocrity pays to genius, so he would have considered 'forty bogus aesthetes' in a town of 500 to be quite a tribute.

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The Record-Union (Sacramento, California) March 27, 1882 , 3

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San Francisco Chronicle, March 27, 1882, 3

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San Francisco Chronicle, March 27, 1882, 3

Elko, NV

Meal stops are indicated by the cross symbol next to the train time on the left of the station name, such as the one at Elko, NV.

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Humboldt, NV

Humboldt House, where mountain spring water supplied a fountain in the bar room. Its advertisement featured a creative illustration of chef character who could be viewed upside down.

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The Humboldt character upside down

Reno, NV

Reno was one of several places where Wilde was given flowers. In San Francisco his traveling manager sought to arrange them to make Oscar's arrival appropriately aesthetic. The Reno papers reported that the gift from there was put to good use.

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San Francisco Chronicle, March 27, 1882, 3

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Weekly Nevada State Journal (Reno, Nevada) April 1, 1882, 3

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Oakland Tribune March 28, 1882, 2

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The Record-Union (Sacramento, CA) March 27, 1882, 3

Yosemite Valley

The western Sierra Nevada impressed Wilde almost as much as his favorite New York restaurant. He wrote later:

The two most remarkable bits of scenery in the States are undoubtedly Delmonico's and the Yosemite Valley. [see: Quotations]

Sacramento to San Francisco

After making another floral presentation at Sacramento, a reporter from the Record Union joined Wilde for breakfast, and an interview which continued on the final leg of the journey. The train terminated at Oakland—the 1873 terminus on 7th Street, just before lunch time on Sunday, March 26, 1882.

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From Oakland, Wilde was taken by carriage to the wharf for the ferry-boat crossing to San Francisco. He was accompanied by many members of the press and a reception committee which had ferried over to Oakland by the 8:00 AM ferry that morning to meet him.

In San Francisco he was whisked away to The Palace Hotel, the largest and one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, which was to be his base for the duration of his California stay.

Crossing to San Francisco

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The Oakland Ferry Boat

Wilde's IMPRESSIONs of four days in the train

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Letter from Wilde to Norman Forbes-Robertson, March 27, 1882 (excerpt), Complete Letters, 158-9

See also Notes [2] and [3] below.

[1] Interview, San Francisco Examiner, March 27, 1882, 2

[2] Joe Knight: Joseph Knight (1829-1907) was an English drama critic. See: Wikipedia.

[3] Vault of blue flame we call the sky: compare Wilde's lines from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

The 1882 Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad Timetables and other railroad ephemera on this page are taken from the Bruce C. Cooper Collection, online at Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum (cprr.org) and used in accordance with this web site's fair use policy of public domain material.

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