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Building Books – Revisited – II


The second of these building books was The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America by Christian Wolmar. While I had wanted to read about the history of the Gateway Arch for quite some time, I had also wanted to read about the building of the railroads in the US. This actually wasn’t the first book I read about railroads or the first book I wanted to read. The first book I ordered and read turned out to be a pictorial history of the railroad lines in the US; informational with lots of photos but not the detailed story I was interested in reading about.

What I really wanted to read about was the early tycoon days of how the railroads were built, the competition that ensued, and the rail barons that consolidated the many smaller roads into monopolistic larger lines. My desire in learning more about this story was sparked when I read about the building of the Penn Station in New York by the head of the Pennsylvania Railroad in, Conquering Gotham: Building Penn Station and its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes.


The book I had planned to read was the Rival Rails: The Race to Build America’s Greatest Transcontinental Railroad by Walter R. Borneman. Unfortunately, before I could order the book, it went out of print and has remained so ever since. Still wanting to read about the early railroads, I found this book by Wolmar.

While this book was true to its title offering a fairly detailed history of railroads in the US, this book did not turn out to be exactly what I was looking for. Wolmar, the author, is British and at the beginning of the book extensively compared the building of the railroad system in England to the US—with a definite bias for the superiority of the British system. But once past that perspective, Wolmar gave a thorough history in the US.


Although the very beginnings of railroad lines in the US was not necessarily the history I was most interested in, it did help me to understand why some of the early train cars that I had seen at the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) museum in Baltimore looked strikingly like stage coach cars on railroad trucks—because that is exactly what they were.


This is further reasonable when you learn that early railroads were actually pulled by horses and that it was not until steam engine technology advanced sufficiently that the competition between the two would ultimately favor the iron horse over its equine competitor.


Another fact I didn’t know was that most early railroad lines were strictly focused on making local connections between two or more points. This certainly explains the naming convention we are so familiar with as the ______ and ______ railroad with the blanks being filled in with the two termination points of the line (e.g., Louisville & Nashville (L&N)). In fact competing lines that eventually served the same city often built their stations in different parts of town to make it more difficult to transfer from one line to another.

A further complicating factor was that the railroads did not settle on a uniform track gauge varying in width from a little over four feet up to six feet. This meant that engines and rolling stock from one line could not be run on a competitor’s lines.


These two last facts figured heavily when the civil war broke out in 1861 and suddenly the inability to move troops and war materiel longer distances hampered the war effort. The railroads did however make a large contribution to the war effort when they could be used to move reinforcements shorter distances and turned the tide of more than one battle.

Probably the most significant railroading event of the 19th century was the building of the transcontinental rail line connecting the East coast with the West coast. And even more significant was the fact that the construction started during the Civil war.

Prior to the war, efforts were undertaken in Congress to pass legislation authorizing the building of the railroad that would run from the Atlantic to the Pacific. But as with most political debates, agreement on the route could not be achieved with the Southern states favoring a southern route and the Northern states favoring a northern route. But once the Southern states seceded from the Union, the North-South debate all but ended and so the measure was passed.

Because there were no Civil War battles occurring on the West coast, construction could begin even as the war raged on in the East. And it was the “Big Four”—Leland Stanford, C. P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—four very influential men who came together to form the Central Pacific Railroad, the railroad that would ultimately meet up with the Union Pacific Railroad in Promontory Point, Utah. Interestingly, on a visit to San Francisco a couple of years ago, I had the chance to have a drink at the Big 4, so named for these four although I didn’t fully understand their significance until reading this book.


As I read the story of the early beginnings of the construction, what was most amazing was not the technical challenges that had to be overcome but the fraud and corruption that occurred. Congress had agreed to fund the building but at different rates based on the difficulty of the terrain. Since no government employee was on site to audit the railroad’s interpretations of the topography, the government could be easily overcharged and the difference pocketed by the railroad partners. To make it even more difficult if auditors did arrive, a contracting company was formed that achieved such scandal as to become the nineteenth century’s equivalent of Enron.

But what was no less appalling was the treatment that the Native Americans—the Indians—received as the two railheads both progressed towards each other. Despite treaties to the contrary, native lands were crossed and in their wake, dead natives were often left behind. As the conflict escalated, the violated Natives became less docile and fought back leading to what we know today as the battles between the “cowboys and Indians.”

In spite of the corruption and the fighting with the Indians, the transcontinental railroad was finally completed on May 10, 1869. But it wasn’t a single railroad line as the starting point in the East had been the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, Iowa. It took consolidation of multiple lines after the Civil war to begin to create a truly national long distance rail system. And this is where the story of the Rail Barons takes over.

But this is where I will have to find another book, as the story I wanted to read wasn’t covered in sufficient detail in this book.

Often times it is good to have an “outsider” look at something and give his or her perspective since their view may well be different from our own. In this book, Wolmar does just that but admits that a detailed history of the railroads in the US would be too voluminous to fit into a single book of reasonable length. For a 30,000-foot view of the nearly 100 years that railroads were the predominant form of transportation in our country, this book gives a good overview from their humble beginnings, to their growth and peak, all the way through to their decline, largely the result of automotive and trucking competition, competition that ironically received government subsidies in the form of public built highways (Railroads received no such subsidy and had to pay for and maintain their own tracks).


So while I certainly learned a lot about the history of railroads in the US, my search for a book about the Rail Barons will continue. And when I do find it, you and I will both know.

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