Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America Hardcover – 19 Aug 2011
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Starred Review. Excellent big-picture, popularly written history of the Howard Zinn mold, backed by a mountain of research and statistics. "
This is history as dark comedy, brilliant and unsettling, puncturing facile economics and bland history alike. With ingenious research and iconoclastic perspective, Richard White recasts our understanding of a major chapter in American history. Mark Twain would be bitterly amused to learn just how gilded the Gilded Age really was. --Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond"
Combining a robust wit with a dedication to endless labor in archives, Richard White delivers a sharp-edged new understanding of industrialization in the Gilded Age. Railroaded offers flabbergasting views of the human talent for self-justification and contradiction, provides a valuable if unsettling comparison to the financial troubles of our times, and shows why the best historians are compared to detectives. To readers intimidated by the topic of railroad finance: master your fears and stay on board for a very wild ride. --Patricia Limerick, Center of the American West, University of Colorado"
This brilliant book will forever change our understanding of the great railroad projects of nineteenth century America. Stripping away easy assumptions of technological triumph and financial wizardry, Railroaded tells a richer and darker story of post-Civil War America. Smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through, this is a powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War. --William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West"
Richard White is one of those rare historians with an unfailing ability to transform any topic he writes about, no matter how familiar that topic might seem. In Railroaded, he tells the story of the western transcontinentals as it has never been told before, with insights that speak as much to our own time as to the nineteenth-century era he explores with such wit and intelligence. --William Cronon, author of Nature s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West"
There is not a historian in America with a steadier gaze than Richard White s: with him, no assumption goes unchallenged, no wisdom is ever merely received. Railroaded is a wonderful book: fresh, provocative, witty, filled with foreshadowing of our world but always true to its time, and told with the narrative force of a locomotive roaring across the empty plains. --Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt"
Railroaded is a leviathan, a provocative challenge to a major myth about the American West: that transcontinentals were a triumph of American entrepreneurship and ingenuity, and a godsend to those who invested in, worked on, rode, lived near, or encountered them. Far from it, Richard West argues in a strongly written narrative that barrels along the track as it draws on intimate vignettes of players great and small, these railroads often proved to be a disaster for all but the handful that dreamed them up and, abetted by cronyism and complacent governmental regulation, enriched themselves as they impoverished the rest. This tale of havoc is an unsettling allegory of today's financial collapse and essential reading for all unnerved by the thought that we seem doomed to repeat history whether we are aware of it or not. --Shepard Krech III, author of The Ecological Indian and professor emeritus, Brown University"
When it comes to the American West, there is no other writer like Richard White, a serious scholar with a highly original take on familiar subjects and wit and elegant prose besides. His subject, the making of the transcontinental railroads, is perhaps the pivotal story of the American West, but it s not the one most of us know from movies and mythologies. It's about the birth of all those things that most trouble us nowadays, a genesis story in which the serpent in Eden is the railroad itself writhing across the continent. A story of corporate power, industrialization, and political corruption, White tells it as it needs to be told. --Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West"
About the Author
Richard White, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Parkman Prize, is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Much in this book will be familiar to students of the post-Civil War Gilded Age of American history. White's history differs from most accounts in its virtually unilateral criticism of the building of transcontinental railroads in the West. White claims the transcontinentals were built far too early when they were not needed, were drastically overbuilt, corruptly financed, and incompetently managed. They destroyed the environment and the Indian tribes, contributed to depressions and economic dislocation, and promoted poor land use and poor settlement patterns in the West. White concludes (p. 517): "The issue is not whether railroads should have been built. The issue is whether they should have been built when and where they were built. And to those questions the answer seems no. Quite literally, if the country had not built transcontinental railroads, it might not have needed them until much later, when it could have built them more cheaply, more efficiently, and with fewer social and political costs."
White writes in detail about the financial and other corruption of the transcontinental railroads. Much of the book is devoted to the arcane and dismal world of railroad finance in the 19th Century. In White's account, the financiers played a shell game in building the railroads putting other people's money and the money and land of the Federal government at risk with little risk to themselves. They financed the building of the railroads through mirrors and construction corporations, such as the infamous Credit Mobilier during Grant's presidency, which they themselves controlled. The railroad owners proved markedly adroit in pulling out the capital the corporations were to receive to their own personal accounts resulting in debts for money never received that the railroads could not pay. The system floundered while individuals grew rich, in White's account. The railroads were controlled by easterners such as Henry Villard, Leland Stanford, Jay Cooke, Collis Huntington, Tom Scott and not by people in the West whom the roads were ostensibly designed to serve. In White's account, the curmudgeonly figure of Charles Francis Adams (1835 -- 1915) stands out. Adams served as the president of the Union Pacific Railroad until forced out by the road's bankruptcy. Adams vainly and ineffectively railed against the system at times and tried to reform it while as an executive he all too often fell victim to it. In the final analysis, White finds little reason to treat Adams more kindly than his other characters or, as White frequently calls them, his "guys".
Besides the emphasis of financial chicanery, White describes the close relationships between financiers and politicians in Congress and in the state governments. There was pervasive corruption in a culture White describes as being based euphemistically on the relationship of "friends." The book details the terrible human cost of the railroads in the form of accidents. It discusses the long misuse of the Chinese, both by the railroads and by their workers. A highlight of the book is a lengthy treatment of the Pullman Strike of 1894.
White intensifies his historical analysis through the use of metaphors. The term "creative destruction" in the title of this review derives from the economist Joseph Schumpeter who saw the rise of 19th century capitalists as sweeping away the old to make way for the new. White fundamentally disagrees with Schumpeter on the positive achievements that allegedly resulted from the building of the transcontinentals. Another figure in the book is the "Octopus" derived from Frank Norris' famous novel about railroad abuses in California and the closely related term "Robber Baron". White rejects these terms as giving too much credit to the financiers and managers of the railroads. He argues that far from making the corporations instruments of power and efficient management, the owners gutted the railroads to their own ends. Their success as individuals, for White, masked their failure as entrepreneurs as witnessed most dramatically by the depressions of 1873 and 1893 and the receiverships which became the frequent fate of the transcontinental systems. Another frequent metaphor of White's is the "Sorceror's Apprentice" by which he means that the railroad monguls unleashed forces that they did not understand and could not control. White does not use another figure which leaps to mind -- that of the formidable Wizard of Oz who proves upon close acquaintance to be "a very poor wizard."
In his Introduction, White identifies several strands of the argument of his book. He argues that the transcontinentals were intertwined from the beginning with the largesse of the Federal government and that the story of private capitalism and initiative is largely a myth. Second, White argues that the transcontinentals changed the concept of "space" in the West to reduce it to the cost of shipping. The book offers a good overview of the difficulties of cost pricing for services offered by the railroads. The difficulties of setting prices led to much abuse, favoritism, and economic dislocation. Third, White argues that the railroad corporations were not "harbingers of order, rationality, and effective, large-scale organization" but were instead incoherently and irrationally managed. Fourth, White offers qualified praise to the antimonopoly movements that arose in the Western states to combat the abuse of the railroads. As his final point, White tries to deflate the myth of the "Rober Barons" for reasons alluded to earlier.
There is much to be learned from White's book. I found the book marred by its patronizing, overly casual writing style and by its aura of certainty. Although he acknowledges the risks of importing current values into a different time, the book seems to me to lack a full historical sense. White pushes on his readers issues such as Enron, the IT bubble, and the economic collapse which began in 2008 as parallels for understanding 19th Century transcontinental railroads. These analogies may be perilous.
The book has provoked a substantial debate among my fellow reader reviewers here on Amazon. I found this a good, thoroughly researched study of the transcontinental railroads in which the author makes no secret of his opinions and possible biases. Students of American history, the West, and the Gilded Age will benefit from the book. A degree of skepticism and a willingness to witthold hasty judgment are valuable qualities to bring to the reading of this book.
To the contrary! White shows that railroads weren't free market enterprises at all: They were publicly-supported, intentional subsidies. Their ultimate success, and their incredible power to remake American life, is not due to brilliant and energetic entrepreneurs but rather to a national decision to tolerate inefficient management and thieving railroad barons in order to further the public interest.
This is useful history. This is powerful interpretation. And it is exhaustive, document-based research. I hope those reviewers who complained about the book will consider David M. Kennedy's advice: We must refuse to believe something merely because we wish it to be true. History is very hard on belief, but it can be a powerful tool for the living.
If you want to get a sense of the book before buying, White has twice been interviewed on the radio this month (check out his interview with Diane Rehm in June or his July 11 Morning Edition interview on NPR).
He recognizes that "Although the transcontinental railroads emerged in markets shaped by large public subsidies and particular legal privileges, neither subsidies nor privileges were new in and of themselves. American states had subsidized and granted special privileges to canals, banks, and railroads in the 1820's and 1830's. These proliferating and often financially disastrous subsidies had brought about a constitutional reaction in the 1840s that dramatically curtailed the ability of the states to subsidize development and lend their credit" leading to the unique viewpoint of his book, "[which]left the ground open for the federal government."
The direct correlation he makes between railroad owners of the 18th century and the financial engineers of the 21st is this: "Transcontinental railroad corporations transformed the government itself by making the government an arena in which the corporations themselves competed, and by making Congress, bureaucracy, and the courts a mechanism for corporate competition."
I for one appreciated White's viewpoint that as a historian you cannot take the privilege of hindsight but must explore every option that the contemporary figures faced, which necessarily takes some bias. The science of history is ever more learning that to tell a history purely objectively is impossible, and in this instance, the idea that these railroad owners were greedy, odious people that shared little with the common good was certainly well represented in the late 19th century.
So if your looking for a sweeping history of the railroads and all its "grandeur" for "civilization," then I would recommend you look elsewhere. But if your looking for a unique perspective on the history of the railroads or a historic model of today's corporations, then cozy up to a good read.
The book genuinely is about railroading, and it is an important book about understanding the origins of the big western roads. It considers railroading from many, many points of view. It also has - perhaps not entirely intentionally - stunning relevance to America's contemporary financial and political problems. On those grounds alone it can be recommended not merely to those interested in railroads, but to anyone interested in financial skulduggery and the corrupting effect it has on political institutions. Some things never change.
This book is a good book, perhaps even a very good book.
It could have been a great book, or maybe volume I of a great work on the railroads.
Chapter 3, pages 93 - 133, entitled "Friends", is a thing of genius, and worth the entire price of the book.
Chapter 4, pages 140 - 178, entitled "Spatial Politics" is very nearly as good.
There are weaknesses, however.
First, the story ends too soon.
What happened afterward? No epilogue?
How did those struggling roads of the 1890's become the powerhouses of the 20th Century? Volume II is clearly required.
What about those other transcontinentals, the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific? The book discusses every other transcontinental.
Second, the writing in the chapters concerning labour disputes might have benefited from greater restraint: The facts speak for themselves, very starkly. They would speak even more starkly without varnish.
Third, what was the relationship between the western roads and the big roads of the official territory east of the Mississippi? The book touches on this, but gently. It is a topic that probably merits its own volume.
In any case, this is the best book of its kind that I have yet seen.
His main conclusion, first presented near the end of the book, and supported by not much of anything in the book, is that the transcontinental railroads were constructed too early in time, "Ahead of Need" as he puts it. This "Ahead of Need" construction caused all kinds of problems according to White. Mainly, he's concerned that it denied the Native Tribes time they could have used to develop an acceptance of the inevitable (his word) settlement of North America by Europeans. This denial of time lead to more violent conflict between the Indians and the Europeans than would have otherwise been the case.
OK, then why were the first transcontinental railroads built when they were built? White doesn't address this issue at all. He just claims that they were built too soon and that the resultant economic and social costs outweighed any benefits. He really doesn't support this claim.
White focuses on three important transcontinental rail routes: 1) The 1st North American transcontinental which linked Omaha and Sacramento, 2) another US transcontinental built to connect the head of navigation on the Great Lakes, Duluth, MN, with Puget Sound, and 3) a Canadian transcon built to link the west coast of that country with the rest of that nation.
White ignores a couple of really important facts. First, these early transcontinental railroads were what we would call today "Public - Private Partnerships." The two national governments basically contracted the building of these rail lines. The governments wanted the rail lines built and they wanted them built quickly. As the Union Pacific puts it: "In 1862 President Lincoln said `Go'. And he never said `Stop'." Why? White doesn't even go near this issue.
Second, White ignores the fact that the 1st US transcontinental would have been built years before it actually was built if it had not been for sectional rivalry in the US. The northern states wanted a northerly route to California. They southern states wanted a southern route. It wasn't until the southern states pulled their representatives and senators out of the national government that congress was able to move on The Pacific Railway Act.
So in some of the darkest days of the US Civil War congress and President Lincoln took time to create a railroad link between the Pacific and the already settled eastern United States. Why? White doesn't say. There were reasons. White pronounces the transcons a prematurely built failure on all counts without examining the reasons for their creation. He doesn't put facts in context, and context is what makes a fact important. Why did two national North American governments want the transcontinental railroads built at the time they were built? White doesn't even start to deal with this issue.
If White is going to contend that the railroads were built too soon he should explain the reasons for building them. He just makes an unsupported claim and then he alters the history of South Dakota in an effort to show that building the transcons was a really bad idea.
In his chapter "The Diverging Dakotas" White contrasts North Dakota, which had one federally sponsored rail line, with South Dakota. South Dakota had virtually no land grant supported rail building. White falsely contends that the rail network in South Dakota was built "With Development" (settlement) while the North Dakota was built "Ahead of Development". This is not what happened.
Contrary to what White claims, the South Dakota rail net was built ahead of settlement. Absent a significant gold strike, it was virtually impossible to have settlement without a transportation system. Families weren't going to pull up stakes and move to South Dakota to engage in subsistence farming. This is what they'd be doing if they couldn't ship their surplus agricultural production out to urban markets.
The Chicago and North Western Railroad got things going when it began construction into unsettled South Dakota. The corporation knew what it was doing. An officer of the railroad had toured eastern South Dakota and determined that it was suitable for farming. All that was needed was transportation, and transportation was the C&NW's business. If they built into the unsettled lands settlement would follow. This settlement would produce a "win-win" situation in which the settlers got to better their lives by having their own farms and the railroad profited from hauling the agricultural production. The C&NW made a business investment that paid off for all concerned. It did so by building a rail line "Ahead of Need"/"Ahead of Settlement". A fact that White turns on its head.
When a competing railroad corporation, later known as "The Milwaukee Road", learned what the C&NW was doing they too began to build rail lines into unsettled South Dakota. The result was rapid settlement up to the boundaries of an Indian reservation, which blocked development in to the western part of South Dakota.
The important fact here is that White misrepresents the settling of the Dakotas to bolster his otherwise unsupported claim. It seems he just doesn't understand the role of the railroads in developing North America. They were "development engines". They were commonly built ahead of settlement. And they were built ahead of that settlement using private investment. The federal government only provided financial support for a very few lines that comprised a small percentage of the rail mileage constructed in the US. We're back to why the government considered these few particular lines to be so important. White doesn't say.
White literally parades his lack of understanding with the following statement:
"...similar technologies and similar economies should produce similar corporations. Great Britain, France, and Prussia, however, did not replicate the American form of railroad organization, although each was a capitalist nation and each employed similar technologies."
The facts are: 1) North America and Europe did not have "Similar Economies". Europe was settled and had existing population/commercial centers. The US was largely unsettled with few, if any, such centers beyond the Atlantic seaboard. 2) The rail technologies used on each continent had a rapid and profound divergence from the beginning of railroading. An example of this divergence would be that rail cars in North America had (and have) eight wheels. European rail cars had four wheels. It may seem minor, but unless one understands the reason for this difference it is impossible to understand why the North American railroads developed differently than the European railroads.
In his book "The North American Railroad", James E Vance Jr. understands and explains the difference between railroads in Britain and the US. The British rail lines were built to connect established centers of commerce and population. They ran through lands that had been settled for centuries. This resulted in a vastly different railroad than was built in the US.
In the US the railroads were commonly built into unsettled lands with no established population or commercial centers. This meant that the US lines were initially built to lower, but totally appropriate, standards. These lower standards resulted in different equipment and operating procedures. When business developed, as it usually did, the American lines were upgraded as warranted.
White doesn't seem to understand this. He doesn't seem to get the fact that transportation was necessary for development, or at least necessary for development at anything more than a snail's pace. It had taken Europe centuries to develop before the railways came about. The American frontier was gone within 100 years. I think that's White's main problem with the American railroads. The railroads accelerated development, and he doesn't like that one bit.
White focuses much of his research and writing on digging up dirt on the men who headed the corporations that built the railroads. There was some dirt. These guys were not saints. But White doesn't have a good word to say about anything they did. Not a word - they were all rotten to the core according to White. Evil men with hearts made in Hell.
He could have been more balanced with this. Some corruption did exist. But it was not exclusive to the railroads. Anytime the government starts throwing money at a problem, there are going to be those who seek to game the system. It happens today. Again, this is where White ignores the context.
I've got to wrap this up. It would take a book to try to correct White's book.
So what was the result of all this railroading that White so disparages. Well, the US was settled and millions of people got life enhancing economic opportunities that would not have otherwise been available to them. The Pacific coast economy was linked to the rest of the nation by secure internal routes. The US got the most efficient rail freight system in the world - which helped the economy grow and created even more opportunities for even more people. The downside, which is paramount for White, is that the Indians had to rapidly adjust to change they weren't ready for.
In his 1912 book "Railroads - Rates and Regulation" the economist William Z. Ripley briefly compared US railroads with European railroads. He noted that while the US corporations were regularly operating 2,000 ton freight trains the best Germany could do was 500 ton coal trains. Ripley notes `that it had taken the Germans 10 years of effort to get their trains up from 400 to 500 tons. By the second half of the 19th Century US railroad charges were steadily falling as improved technology created improved efficiency. The US system remains the safest and most cost efficient rail freight system in the world to this day. The transcontinental rail routes that White disparages continue to be important arteries of commerce. Not one transcontinental route built in the 19th century has fallen into disuse or been taken up.
I'd say, on balance, things worked out pretty well. White's book, however, is apparently not intended to be anywhere near "On Balance".