George Francis Train, a nutty, attention-seeking businessman, in 1871 traveled around the world in 80 days. The feat caused a sensation, but only after a writer named Jules Verne fictionalized it.
Train actually went around the world three times. It was a report of his first journey in a French periodical that caught Jules Verne’s attention. Verne wrote a serialized novel about a Londoner named Phileas Fogg. The book was a sensation.
Train was already one of the most famous men in America. He wasn’t happy that Verne co-opted his story. “Remember Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days?” he told English reporters. “He stole my thunder. I’m Phileas Fogg.”
George Francis Train, Man of Business
George Francis Train was born in Boston on March 24, 1829, to Oliver Train and Maria Pickering Train. The family moved to New Orleans, where his mother and three sisters died of yellow fever when George was four. He was sent to live with his maternal grandparents to escape the plague, which later killed his father.
His grandparents were strict Methodists who lived on a farm in Waltham, Mass. They wanted him to become a minister or a blacksmith. Train would have none of it.
Train was emotional and impulsive, an attention-seeking scatterbrain who ran a quixotic campaign for president of the United States. He went to jail 15 times either for siding with revolutionaries or assuming the bad debts of others. He was also a brilliant businessman.
At 16 he met Enoch Train, his father’s wealthy cousin who ran a shipping business. He quit his job in a grocery store and went to work for his cousin. While working for Train and Company he organized the clipper ship routes that sailed around Cape Horn to San Francisco.
His business ventures took him around the globe: to Australia, where he established shipping routes between Liverpool and Australia; to England, where he introduced trams to Birkenhead and London; from Hong Kong to Canton with the man who would marry Hetty Green, the Witch of Wall Street.
Along the way he met and married Wilhelmina Wilkinson Davis. They had three children who survived infancy. While living in Australia, Wilhelmina became pregnant and he insisted she return to the United States so his son could be born there and become president. Wilhelmina delivered a girl in Liverpool.
Train of Ideas
In Europe he met Queen Maria Cristina of Spain, who owned land in Pennsylvania. Train arranged the financing for the Atlantic and Great Western Railroad across Queen Maria Cristina’s land. The railroad failed, but he pocketed $100,000 in commission.
During the Civil War he lived in England, where he promoted the Union cause with colorful speeches and a newspaper. He returned to the United States convinced he could end the war because his wife was related to Jefferson Davis.
By 1869 he decided to build a transcontinental railroad across the Rocky Mountains. Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt told him he’d be called a lunatic if he tried.
Train financed the Union Pacific Railroad by starting Credit Mobilier with Thomas Durant and financing from 16 friends. He invested in real estate along the proposed route, including 5,000 house lots in Omaha worth $30 million at his death.
He left Credit Mobilier before it erupted into one of the biggest scandals of the century. Congressmen were bribed to cover up fraud and profiteering in the railroad’s construction construction.
But Train, at 34, was losing interest in business ventures and becoming increasingly eccentric. One newspaper reporter wrote, “The Train of ideas sometimes lacks the coupling chain.”
By then he owned a 2-1/2-acre estate in Newport, R.I., called the Train Villa (demolished in the 1970s). He tried to win the Republican nomination for president of the United States in 1872, but was easily beaten out by New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley. Train gave a thousand speeches and told a reporter he was the greatest man in the world. He called himself, ‘the Great American Crank.’ No one voted for him.
Around the World in 80 Days (Sort Of)
In the middle of his campaign for president, George Francis Train suddenly decided to take his trip around the world. He did make it in 80 days, if you don’t count the two months he spent in Paris working for the revolutionary cause.
In 1871, Train left New York on a Union Pacific train and arrived in San Francisco seven days later. He took the Great Republic clipper ship to Yokohama, then moved on to Singapore where he learned of the revolution in France. He headed for Marseille, where the revolutionary Communards greeted him and asked him to speak. Always loving attention, Train plunged into the cause, giving speeches and summoning an exiled general to aid the Communards. He was imprisoned in Lyons for his revolutionary activity, but released after 13 days when the U.S. government and Alexandre Dumas intervened.
He chartered a train to the English Channel and sailed from Liverpool to New York. When he arrived, he claimed to have gone round the world in 80 days. No one checked.
Verne added a few details to George Francis Train’s story: He put Fogg on an elephant in India. He had him rescue a Farsi girl Aouda, outwit a detective in China and burn the superstructure of his steamer for fuel to cross the Atlantic. He invented a sledge with a sail to carry Fogg to Omaha. Verne called his novel Around the World in Eighty Days.
Nearly 20 years later, Around the World in Eighty Days was far from forgotten. So New York World reporter Nelly Bly, also an attention seeker, decided to beat Phileas Fogg’s record. She made the trip in 72 days, six hours and 11 minutes.
Around the World in 67 Days
Train was furious. He convinced the Tacoma Evening Ledger to publicize his second trip. Then he made the 16-day voyage from Tacoma to Yokohama, where officials detained him for not having a passport. So he got one and made his way to Singapore.
Then Train chartered a vessel in Calais to take him to New York, where he stalled for 36 hours because he couldn’t get a seat on a train. He chartered a special train and sped toward Tacoma, arriving after 67 days, 12 hours and two minutes. He was 61.
Two years later, a town named Whatcom, Wash., offered to finance another trip around the world to publicize itself. Train accepted and completed the journey in 60 days.
George Francis Train spent his last days sunning himself on a park bench in New York City, feeding pigeons and giving dimes to children. He died Jan. 19, 1904 of Bright’s disease. His brain was removed before he was buried. It ranked 26th among the brains of 107 famous people – ahead of Daniel Webster.
After his death in 1904, the Thirteen Club, a secret society he had belonged to, passed a resolution. It called George Francis Train one of the few sane men in a mad, mad world.’
With thanks to The Square Pegs by Irving Wallace. This story was updated in 2019.