The short story "The Celestial Railroad" by Nathaniel Hawthorne has similarities to the famous novel The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, and it even refers to Bunyan's tale in the text. Both stories are descriptions of dreams. However, Hawthorne's story does not have the overt Christian message that Bunyan's does. Additionally, the unnamed narrator in "The Celestial Railroad" does not undertake his journey out of a spiritual need for salvation, but merely "to gratify a liberal curiosity."
In the dream, the narrator has heard that a railway now exists between the City of Destruction and the Celestial City, and he decides to take a ride on it. His companion in his coach is Mr. Smooth-it-away, who has never visited the Celestial City but is familiar with the City of Destruction.
A bridge takes them over the Slough of Despond, and Mr. Smooth-it-away explains that the bridge's foundation is comprised of various books of morality, philosophy, and theology. Christian's friend Evangelist from The Pilgrim's Progress works at the ticket office of the stationhouse at the entrance to the City of Destruction. The stationhouse is crowded with passengers, which the narrator contrasts with Bunyan's solitary pilgrim on foot. Everyone seems to be in a good mood for their journey to the Celestial City. Instead of having to carry their loads on their back, they can simply deposit them in the baggage car. Prince Beelzebub's subjects help to take care of the station and the baggage. Mr. Greatheart from Bunyan's book, who might have helped, has already gone off to the Celestial City.
The engineer of the train, who sits on top of the engine, is the demon Apollyon, Christian's enemy. The narrator applauds the liberality of this arrangement. As they pull away from the station, the narrator comments on the modern convenience of the train as opposed to traveling on foot. As they travel, Mr. Smooth-it-away points out various locations that Christian encountered in Bunyan's book, but they don't have time to stop at these places. The narrator discusses with other passengers how safe their baggage is. He also appreciates the tunnel that passes through the Hill Difficulty and the filling in of the Valley of Humiliation, making it much easier to get past these impediments.
Apollyon races the train rapidly through the Valley of the Shadow of Death as Mr. Smooth-it-away explains away the supposed horrors of the passage. Once they are through, the narrator chats with Mr. Take-it-easy, who prefers the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The train goes through a Dark Valley where the narrator interprets the sins and passions he perceives as mere imagination. It then passes Giant Transcendentalist, who likes to feed on travelers, but gets safely away.
The narrator stops for a time at Vanity Fair, which he enjoys. As he lingers there, he begins to think of it as home. He meets Mr. Stick-to-the-truth and Mr. Foot-it-to-heaven, who explain to him that Vanity Fair is a dead end and will not help him get to the Celestial City. Mr. Smooth-it-away dismisses their arguments, but when the narrator continues on the railroad, Mr. Smooth-it-away stays with him.
The journey resumes, and the train passes other places described in The Pilgrim's Progress. The train finally reaches the final station, and a steam ferry is ready at the river to take the passengers on the last stage of their trip to the Celestial City. At this point, Mr. Smooth-it-away says he will not cross and reveals himself to be a demon, and the narrator awakens from his dream.