Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard WhiteThe transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century were the first corporate behemoths. Their attempts to generate profits from proliferating debt sparked devastating panics in the U.S. economy. Their dependence on public largess drew them into the corridors of power, initiating new forms of corruption. Their operations rearranged space and time, and remade the landscape of the West. As wheel and rail, car and coal, they opened new worlds of work and ways of life. Their discriminatory rates sparked broad opposition and a new antimonopoly politics.
With characteristic originality, range, and authority, Richard White shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
The transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century were the first corporate behemoths. Their attempts to generate profits from proliferating debt sparked devastating panics in the U. Their dependence on public largess drew them into the corridors of power, initiating new forms of corruption. Their operations rearranged space and time, and remade the landscape of the West. As wheel and rail, car and coal, they opened new worlds of work and ways of life.
When he published those lines in , the vast network that connected West to East was being widely hailed as the muscular marvel of the industrial age. It sped the bounty of farms and factories across the land, spawned hundreds of towns and cities along its routes, pioneered in marketing and managerial organization, and employed a huge and growing labor force. The men who created and ran the transcontinentals Leland Stanford, Collis P.
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Richard White is a prolific historian whose earlier works have changed our understanding of several periods of American history. His book on the relations of white empires and Native polities in the Great Lakes region reshaped views of First Nations history throughout the continent. When it was announced that Richard White was working on a history of the transcontinental railways, there were high hopes that he would produce a work that would be to the same scholarly standard as his earlier books. White has fulfilled these expectations and has produced a work that develops many of the themes present in his earlier research. White has written an impressive revisionist history of the North American transcontinental railways and their impact on the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
In the broad sweep of American history, the transcontinental railroads have long been hailed for their positive effects, chiefly the ability to reduce what had been a journey of weeks or months across the continent by foot, wagon, or waterborne vessel or more likely some combination thereof down to a few days. Not only did the rails over the plains and mountains allow for the movement of people and goods, but they were also conduits for the exchange of ideas. Popular perceptions of the Transcontinental Era, spanning the second half of the 19th century, are still colored by stories of larger than life personalities and heroic engineering feats. Continuing in this vein, Richard White also asks a straightforward question: Should the transcontinental railroads have been built when and where they were? In chapters detailing the financial, social, political, and ecological trade-offs, the author lays out a compelling and well-reasoned case that the feverish rush to build across the west caused great and needless upheaval where a more measured, incremental approach would have better served the nation in the long term. For all the investment that the federal government made in the transcontinental lines, the country received poorly maintained railroads and redundant trackage that represented squandered resources. Economic markets were distorted, leading to a series of financial depressions, and corruption seemingly infested everything that the railroads touched.