Railways to Nowhere

railroad-1930-300x231Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White; Norton, 2011; 660 pp.

The locomotive is an essential symbol of that famous idea of American expansionism, “Manifest Destiny.” This doctrine declared that American society would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was held with such religious fervor that it became the subject of allegorical works of art. Tellingly, the railroads were not viewed so reverently at the time. Indeed, they were popularly depicted as an octopus strangling the United States legal, economic, and political systems.

With Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White has contributed a coherent and deeply thoughtful account of the rapid growth, rampant mismanagement, and swift decline of the railroads that reached the Pacific coast. White provides his reader trenchant insights to the myriad industries that found themselves intertwined, for better or worse, with the railroads. At times, he also offers criticism of the policies that facilitated the robbery of public (and Indian) lands, abuse of natural resources, and crippling of America’s economy.

White, a professor of American history at Stanford University (an institution that owes its founding to a railroad fortune), has a complete grasp on the subject. His writing has a palpable conviction and is supported by over 100 pages of appended notes. White narrows his focus to the roads built westward from termini typically along the Missouri River, which were billed as “transcontinental.” This specificity helps guide the reader through a very complex history. On several occasions White registers his astonishment that individuals could profit so enormously by running corporations so ruinously.

Many readers will draw the inevitable connections between the failure of the transcontinentals and a drama unfolding today. This parallel, discussed in great depth in the pages of Dissent by Gary Gerstle (ironically, a professor at Vanderbilt, another university endowed with railroad dollars), contains many pertinent lessons. Baffling laissez-faire finance policies make today a virtual Gilded Age redux. White cleverly avoids this comparison, to the credit of his work as an historian.

The eschatological metaphor of American westward expansion is extended to the book’s opening chapter, entitled “Genesis.” In the wake of the Civil War, several enterprising men turned their attention from saving the Union to feeding its growth. This was largely accomplished through complicated financing schemes that relied on massive infusions of public support in the form of bond purchases and land endowments. The idea that the railroad would lead to successful, profitable settlement in the West was infectious. It led to irrational and enormously expensive races to build roads across arid, treeless territories like western Kansas.

The fever that consumed the entrepreneurs and businesses that buttressed the construction of roads relied on and fed into arguments based on something other than fact or logic. One outrageous example is the claim – substantiated at the time by a University of Nebraska biologist – that farming land would bring moisture to an otherwise waterless region. Likewise, the collapse of the transcontinentals essentially marked the failure of government-abetted speculation. White’s frustration boils over into anger late in the book:

The development of the rest of the [West] would have been delayed without multiple transcontinentals, but what would have been lost? Mines that glutted the market for silver? The catastrophes that befell both cattle and buffalo on the Great Plains? The suffering of those who settled lands that could not sustain them all over the West? The calamities that afflicted Indians who lost their land, their way of life, and often their lives?

Railroaded is not for novices of American history. Many readers will recall the names of the major rail lines – the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Great Northern, and so on. Likewise, individuals like Jay Gould, James J. Hill, or Eugene V. Debs will be known by anyone with an interest in the subject. Yet many passages are bogged down by the names of obscure senators, roads, and upper-level corporate managers. Though this information reiterates White’s immense research and adds a human face to many stories of corruption and disillusionment, more general terms would suffice. Many details escape the reader’s memory and the book would not be the worse for some finer editing.

The hubris of railroad men – who made fortunes through the manipulation of their insolvent companies – is maddening. White reserves his most serious contempt for the Southern Pacific consortium that included two of the book’s main characters, Collis P. Huntington and his hated rival and inept business partner Leland Stanford. They and others like them, who knew admittedly little about the operation of a railroad, turned the industry into a high-stakes game played with government and private dollars.

White’s tale delivers blow after blow to the hope that corporate and political interests would eventually go their own ways. Instead, they grew more entangled and interdependent. The early commercial success of the transcontinentals was due not to their excellence in operation but creative, dangerous financing. Through controlling newspapers, bankrolling election campaigns, or simply offering bribes (sometimes to members of both parties simultaneously), these businessmen created public support that they then leveraged into government subsidies. Their corporations sold bonds to the public to finance projects or boost stock prices through the payment of dividends, none of which they could actually afford.

Railroaded deftly combines years of research and analysis of a quintessential American industry. To say that federal and state governments were swindled by cunning capitalists would be too lenient towards the government. Legislators were actively complicit in the creation of nominally regulatory agencies that in practice further entrenched industry hands in government pockets. The tentacles of the railroad octopus reached far and strangled whatever they could grasp. The abuses were not only detrimental to the development of the American West, but were the main ingredient in the industry’s own collapse. White’s insights enhance his reporting of complicated facts to create this rewarding book.

Note: This review appeared in The Wagner Review on November 14, 2011.

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