Today's Reading

The simple answer was "their great wealth and power." They deployed both to produce more of the same, subordinating every moral principle, every goal, every instinct to the getting of wealth and power alone, and to do so at every level of government and society. "Their influence," Larrabee wrote,

extends from the township assessor's office to the national capital, from the publisher of the small cross-roads paper to the editorial staff of the metropolitan daily. It is felt in every caucus, in every nominating convention and at every election. Typical railroad men draw no party lines, advocate no principles, and take little interest in any but their own cause; they are, as Mr. [Jay] Gould expressed it, Democrats in Democratic and Republicans in Republican districts Their favors, their vast armies of employes ['sic'] and attorneys and their almost equally large force of special retainers are freely employed to carry into execution their political designs, and the standard of ethics recognized by railroad managers in these exploits is an exceedingly low one.


Henry David Thoreau, who could hear the passing New England trains from his refuge on the shore of Walden Pond, viewed the railroads as carriers of the disease of speed, and placed them among civilization's distracting "pretty toys," totems of a deluding modernity. To Thoreau the railroads went hand in hand with a second technology with which they were inextricably bound, the telegraph. "They are but improved means to an unimproved end," he wrote in Walden, "an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at;... We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." He foresaw the oppression, physical and spiritual, that would come in the wake of progress. "We do not ride on the railroad," he wrote; "it rides upon us."

The wealth created by the railroad industry was prodigious, but unevenly bestowed. A railroad magnate's decision about where to lay his tracks could turn a prairie hamlet of shacks into a great metropolis, or a thriving city into a ghost town. Decisions about how to raise capital and deploy it could filter riches to middle-class investors or turn their railroad securities from gilt to dross. The railroads were seen at first as providers of jobs, and good ones—jobs requiring skills that could be ported from location to location and road to road; by the 1880s, however, after the first punishing rounds of wage cuts and layoffs, they were regarded as exploiters of labor, becoming the targets of some of the first mass strikes in American history. Meanwhile, the mergers designed to eliminate what railroad owners called "excess" competition were condemned by their customers as instruments of monopoly allowing the roads to charge "excessive freight and passenger tariffs [operating] most injuriously to the best interest of the farming class," and "extortionate charges" levied on merchants.

The nineteenth-century economist Henry George, a scold of inequality amid abundance, anticipated from his vantage point in San Francisco the railroad's capacity to bring wealth to a few and poverty to the many. "A great change is coming over our State," he wrote with trepidation only a few months before the transcontinental railroad's completion. "The California of the new era will be greater, richer, more powerful than the California of the past; but will she be still the same California whom her adopted children, gathered from all climes, love better than their own mother lands?... She will have more wealth; but will it be so evenly distributed?... Will she have such general comfort, so little squalor and misery; so little of the grinding, hopeless poverty that chills and cramps the souls of men, and converts them into brutes?"

George saw how this story would unfold. "The completion of the railroad and the consequent great increase of business and population will not be a benefit to all of us, but only to a portion... Those who have it will make wealthier; for those who have not, it will make it more difficult to get....

Can we rely upon sufficient intelligence, independence and virtue among the many to resist the political effect of the concentration of great wealth in the hands of a few?"

The answer would be no. By the end of the century the railroad would have changed California, and the United States, into something wholly unrecognizable to the Henry George of 1868.

One spur to that transformation was the flow of people into the American continental heartland, at a rate of three or four hundred thousand every year. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the end of the American frontier in 1893, but what may be less appreciated is the role of rail in its disappearance. Wagon roads and canals eradicated the frontier between the East and the Mississippi in the 1840s and 1850s, but the truly revolutionary development was the penetration of the railroads into what had been judged the "great American desert," stretching from Missouri, Arkansas, and Iowa west to the Pacific. Turner described this territory as "surveyed into rectangles, guarded by the United States Army, and recruited by the daily immigrant ship, [moving] forward at a swifter pace and in a different way than the frontier reached by the birch canoe or the pack horse." As the empires of yore colonized their conquered territories around the globe, the railroad empires conquered and then colonized the American heartland.


As Charles Francis Adams had predicted, the railroads' influence soon did touch every facet of American life: politics, business management, finance, labor, farming. All these were essentially local before the Civil War; all took on a national character afterwards, due to the ability of the railroads to transport goods and produce, wealth, and knowledge over vast distances with unprecedented speed, and to their insatiable demands for capital, manpower, technology, raw materials, and traffic.
...

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...