by Richard White

Upon the completion of the transcontinental railroad, at the very moment the sledge would have hit the spike (Governor Stanford missed), the nation was notified via telegraph and celebrations broke out.  The “genius of the American people” was being celebrated. 

Alfred Richardson in Beyond the Mississippi, published in 1869, said, “...this  magic key [the transcontinental railroad] will unlock our Golden Gate, and send surging through its rocky portals a world-encircling tide of travel, commerce, and Christian civilization.”

That was the common sentiment in 1869 at the completion of the transcontinental railroad and it was what we learned in school.  The railroad opened the continent and kept California in the Union.  It brought progress, national union, and civilization.

Railroaded, by Richard White, turns that notion on its head and contradicts all of the transcontinental literature.  White says the transcontinentals were unnecessary, almost all were economic failures, they were all social failures, and they were political failures.  They contributed to economic dislocation and depression,  encouraged corruption, and destroyed local economies and communities.  The builders were inept and built shoddy products.  There was abuse of labor and destruction of the labor movement.  The transcontinentals harmed Native Americans, and hastened the destruction of the buffalo.  They opened lands to farming before the production was needed leading to oversupply and economic collapse.  They brought in open range cattle a poorly run industry.

The transcontinentals may have been okay a generation later but were certainly not okay when they were built.

The railroads were seen as sources of wealth but only to the builders who manipulated the building so they were paid but the railroads were saddled with debt.  The owners were not “devoted to the efficient sale of transportation” but only to financial manipulation.  The only way the railroads made money was through governmental subsidies, the sale of questionable financial instruments, insider manipulation, and financial and land speculation.  Instead of adding to the economy they were a drain.  The investments in transcontinental railroads would have been much better elsewhere without government subsidies and government encouragement.

Almost all of that indictment is in the introduction, which is White’s thesis.  The body of the book’s 500 pages is a litany of abuses and negative effects.  Most of the space is taken up with descriptions of the corruption of which there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply.  Mr. White did exhaustive research reading letters, legislation, newspaper accounts, Congressional testimony, etc. to validate his thesis.

Richard White is not just reporting but he is also analyzing deeply railroading’s effects.  For example he focuses on the manipulation of space by railroads.  Railroad travelers lost any connection with the land through which the traveled.  Travelers on horseback became intimately familiar with the land.  Railroad travelers had no conception of anything between the start and the destination.  The railroads then manipulated the destinations.  The placement of railroad stations, often not where towns were due to attempts to capitalize on real estate, “imposed unnatural patters of organization and economic growth.”  Successful towns became unviable as the railroad bypassed what existed to connect to what did not yet exist. 

The manipulation of rates was not based on cost but by railroad advantage.  For example, the railroad put steamboats on the Sacramento River out of business by charging high transfer fees. That then affected the river communities.

Without the railroads there would have been less waste; less suffering; less environmental degradation; fewer economic busts in mining cattle and agriculture; more time for the Native Americans to adjust to the coming of civilization; and fewer booms and busts.

Railroaded has everything to make a cynic happy and validate his beliefs about human nature: political and economic skullduggery and chicanery, incompetence, misfeasance and malfeasance, misappropriation, insider benefits to public detriment, and cheating and theft. 

When I first heard of Railroaded I was intrigued by the author’s divergent and creative analysis at odds with what I’d heard before.   I wanted to read it.  It’s interesting to consider new points of view.  One could read just the introduction to get the point and then skim through the 500 pages of proof quickly.  But for this esteemed journal (or website if you are reading this on the web) I slogged through all 500 pages and then spent time with the long footnote list.

Mr. White makes good points.  There was corruption and manipulation.  Clearly there were negative effects of the transcontinental railroads but does that mean they should not have been built?  Did the negative effects outweigh the positive over the long term?

It took months to get to California before the railroad, or weeks on a stage.  The railroad opened California to settlement and provided opportunity to many.    With that settlement and the railroad California produce and products could get to the rest of the country.  That started industries in California and filled needs in the rest of the country.  The products of Asia could more easily get to the rest of the country as well.

A main part of Mr. White’s thesis is that the railroads came too early.  The West didn’t have the population to support them but that’s a “chicken and the egg” argument.  Mr. White expects economic development to bring the railroads but the railroads brought economic development.  They brought people, opened markets, and developed raw material sources for the rest of the country.

Then there are the non-quantitative effects on the psyche of the American people.  The railroads were a technological expression of manifest destiny.  They were a symbol that American know how and expertise could conquer anything.  They were a symbol of American optimism and the Americans’ conquering of the continent.  It would have taken a whole different kind of people to consider and NOT build the railroads across the continent.  Perhaps we should not have gone to the moon because there is a no ready application for the landing.  The American spirit has always demanded innovation, exploration, and control.  To argue against the railroads is to argue against American History because one does not like some of the results.  That can be a good argument to make. Certainly America did not always do the best things but the railroad building was part of the American character.

That there was corruption is hardly a surprise.  It was not only in the railroad industry, it was in all industries.  The excesses of the “Gilded Age” are legion.  That is why, starting with the progressives, that we have laws and regulations, to keep our baser natures in check.  We sometimes learn from the past.  Railroads may have had bad effects and may have been built for the wrong reasons but they did build the country and California and to argue against them is to argue against American dynamism of the time.  The character of the nation at the time demanded railroad building.