Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929

Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929

by Sarah H. Gordon

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Exploring the social, economic, and legal impact of the growth of the railroads, Sarah Gordon has written a richly informed narrative history of an American icon—with surprising conclusions. Where the railroads and their entrepreneurs are ordinarily celebrated for drawing together the vast geographical reaches of the union, Ms. Gordon finds that this


Exploring the social, economic, and legal impact of the growth of the railroads, Sarah Gordon has written a richly informed narrative history of an American icon—with surprising conclusions. Where the railroads and their entrepreneurs are ordinarily celebrated for drawing together the vast geographical reaches of the union, Ms. Gordon finds that this accomplishment was achieved at high cost. Conflicts of interest—at local, state, and regional levels—characterized railroad growth at every stage. Despite the stated aims of government and the railroad corporations to promote settlement and commerce, Ms. Gordon explains, the states lost control and lost the economic benefits of the roads that ran through them. Smaller towns withered as people and money flowed to larger cities. By 1900 the union that had emerged reflected the worst fears of railroad critics. The South and West had been settled, but wealth had become so concentrated in cities that rural life had lost its attraction. Drawing from a wide variety of sources, including literature, diaries, and memoirs, Sarah Gordon has constructed an absorbing story of apparent triumph and real loss.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
Continually intriguing and particularly rich...layered.
— Michael Kennedy
Columbia University
A quite wonderful book...richly textured and intellectually stimulating.
— Elizabeth Blackmur
Virginia Quarterly Review
Engaging and nicely written, with a definitive and sustained point of view.
Journal Of Southern History
A compelling argument.
The Journal of Southern History
A compelling argument.
The Journal Of Southern History
A compelling argument.
Chicago Tribune - Michael Kennedy
Continually intriguing and particularly rich...layered.
Columbia University - James F. Goodwin
One of the best accounts I have read of the railroad in America. It blends history, technology, business, and social concerns to achieve a total perspective.
Columbia University - Elizabeth Blackmur
A quite wonderful book...richly textured and intellectually stimulating.
Journal of Southern History
A compelling argument.
Continually intriguing and particularly rich...layered
Chicago Tribune
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The principal argument of this highly readable social, economic and political history of the first 100 years of American railroads is that after the Civil War the nationwide web of train tracks unified the country, increased national communication, facilitated transcontinental expansion and then went on to destroy small-town America. By funneling money and labor power to cities, especially those in the North, the railroads undermined the rural economy and weakened the economic and political power of local as well as national government. Gordon, who teaches American history on both the high school and college levels in Connecticut, presents her case in solid academic fashion, but she also has an eye for telling social detail and makes apt references to the popular culture. She underlines the irony that once railroads had stretched across the country, a new emphasis on cost-cutting, efficiency and higher profits began reducing services to the small communities that were the original building blocks of the system. She even examines lawsuits involving property damages and personal injury to show that decline of services. Illustrations not seen by PW. (Jan.)
Library Journal
Gordon, a Connecticut teacher and writer, undertakes an integrated account of the railroad's effect on American law, sociology, and politics. Her capacious subtitle indicates that she intends to cover a very large subject, and she does, but unsuccessfully. She has divided her work into three chronological sections within which she explores various themes topically. She assembles a great deal of interesting information; almost every page yields a surprising fact. Unfortunately, the pieces do not always equal an interesting book, and this narrative never develops any flow as it lurches, trainlike, from topic to topic. Gordon has simply tried to synthesize too many topics; for example, a chapter on the Civil War and railroads can only be superficial, and it is hard to see any nonmilitary ramifications, which are necessary to Gordon's theme. These flaws do not detract from the book's considerable research usefulness, and it is interesting to dip into, but its appeal to a general audience is probably fairly limited. An optional purchase for academic libraries.-Fritz Buckallew, Univ. of Central Oklahoma Lib., Edmond

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How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929


Copyright © 1997 Sarah H. Gordon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-56663-218-8

Chapter One

E Pluribus Unum

The entire population, both slave and free, west of the mountains, reached not yet half a million; but already they were disposed to think themselves, and the old thirteen states were not altogether unwilling to consider them, the germ of an independent empire, which was to find its outlet, not through the Alleghenies to the seaboard, but by the Mississippi River to the Gulf.... Nowhere did eastern settlements touch the western. -Henry Adams, History of the United States of America, 1889

At the last session of the legislature of New York in 1836, no less than forty-two new railroad companies were incorporated.... The state of New York alone, therefore, will in a few years have ninety-two railroads, facilitating the intercourse of its principal towns and villages, or connecting them with the railroads of other states in order to establish lines of communication with the southern, western, and eastern parts of the country. -Francis J. Grund, The Americans, in their Moral, Social and Political Relations, 1837

In 1889, when the historian Henry Adams published his six-volume History of the United States of America, he devoted the firstchapter to a description of the transportation problems encountered by Americans in 1800. Roads were so few, stagecoaches so slow, and sailboats so occasional that statesmen and merchants feared for the stability of the Union. More than two-thirds of the American people lived within fifty miles of the Atlantic Ocean, and they had almost no contact with settlers who had crossed the Allegheny Mountains to the Northwest Territory, Kentucky, and Tennessee. By 1845 more than half the population lived west of the Alleghenies; by 1900 the western frontier of open land was closed all the way to the Pacific.

Adams was not alone in identifying transportation as crucial to the success of the new American nation. George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, three of the Federalists who had sheperded the Constitution into place in 1788, favored cooperation between business and government to advance the cause of internal improvements: the development of transportation routes over land and water. The interests of business would be served by opening the West and making it accessible to the commercial centers of the East. And the interests of government would be met by putting the West, South, and Northeast in closer touch with one another, thus strengthening the weak and untested political bonds of a rapidly growing nation.

Before 1800, long-distance travelers usually followed water routes. Up and down the coast from Maine to the port of New Orleans, the coastwise trade of food, ice, and other local products was frequently accompanied by small numbers of passengers. Early settlers to the interior almost always followed the course of rivers. Eastern colonial settlements dotted the shores of the Connecticut River, the Hudson, the Delaware, and other waterways. To reach points further west, travelers headed for the Ohio River, which had its headwaters in western Pennsylvania and followed a western course until it emptied into the Mississippi River at the site of present-day Cairo, Illinois. Further south, pioneers followed the course of the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, while others took boats north from New Orleans up the Mississippi all the way to Illinois.

By 1800 the river routes had been supplemented by roads constructed for military purposes and by three wagon roads, all of which facilitated travel to the Ohio River: the Wilderness Road, the Knoxville Road, and the Old Walton Road. But construction of these roads was hampered by disagreement over the appropriate role of the federal government, so that the impulse for internal improvements came to reside more and more with state governments. By 1830 state legislators had successfully backed the construction of several thousand miles of canals, including the Erie Canal which connected the Hudson River to the Great Lakes, and the Ohio canals which scored that wide, flat state from the Great Lakes south to the Ohio River. Emigrants followed these water routes at a speed of about four miles per hour to find and claim open land.

Even as newspapers hailed canals as the solution to America's transportation problem, both state legislators and the federal government began receiving appeals from entrepreneurs who sought special considerations for the construction of railroads. During the early 1820s Congress took an interest in marine railways for bringing ships into dry dock. Small railways with horse-drawn wagons were used to haul freight. The Quincy Railroad in Massachusetts hauled granite; the Mauch Chunk gravity railroad in Pennsylvania brought coal down to water's edge, then brought its cars back up to the mine with animal power.

By 1830 railroads in New York, Maryland, and South Carolina had begun providing regularly scheduled services for passengers, carrying them in a train of cars pulled by steam locomotive. During the next thirty years business and state governments cooperated, awkwardly but effectively, to construct 30,626 miles of railroad between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi River. Railroads evolved from local lines serving local interests, to regional lines with service that first connected bodies of water, then towns, cities, and states. In many respects this construction helped to realize the hopes of those who supported internal improvements. Trade and transport emerged as unifying forces, promoting the exchange of people and goods among the nation's regions.

Despite a professed goal of national unity that encouraged state legislatures to charter railroads, a close look at the relationship between state governments and business reveals a highly complex relationship that was not always successful. Eastern cities and states pursued their plans for railroads in order to gain the advantage in fierce economic competition. The plum they each sought was trade that extended beyond their immediate boundaries to distant communities and eventually to the undeveloped West, with its lure of wealth in natural resources.

New York, which had taken the lead in developing the Western trade with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, began to face stiff competition for that trade when Baltimore opened its Baltimore and Ohio Railroad about five years later, and when Boston began to build its Western Railroad, connecting the city with Albany and the Erie Canal. When railroads proved more efficient and cheaper than canals, New York retaliated against Baltimore and Boston by beginning construction on the Erie Railroad, a railroad that would eventually connect the Hudson River to the Great Lakes. Pennsylvania had entered the competition with a combination of trains and canals connected in patchwork fashion across the state. But this system could not compete with the railroads either, and Philadelphia fell behind New York and Baltimore in its Western trade. Portland, Maine, tried to bypass strong competition to the South by connecting its railroads with Canada, but in the long run this proved almost fatal to the success of Portland's railroad system and Maine's economy.

In the South the earliest railroads connected port cities with cotton and tobacco fields to the west. But because of relatively few towns and low populations, railroading in the South developed slowly and remained chiefly a state enterprise until after the Civil War.

Railroad building generated competition and conflict in other ways as well. Canal owners and operators resented the railroads as unfair competition, disallowed by their state charters. Technically the canal owners were right, and the law was changed to accommodate state economic interests. Stagecoach drivers also objected, as did tavern owners and farmers who did not want tracks across their land. Local farmers did not want produce shipped to their cities from a distance, and townspeople would not allow locomotives within city limits. The list of protesters was a long one, but exhortations for prosperity and national unity eclipsed individual considerations.

States issued the charters and helped raise the funds that made railroad construction possible. Under traditions of state law, anyone who wished to start a business such as a railroad had to obtain a charter from his state legislature or the United States Congress. The system of issuing state charters for business ventures allowed state governments close control over their economies, and railroads were no exception. In the public interest the charters placed legal restrictions on the operation of railroads, regulating such matters as fares, the nature of services, the location and condition of the track, and train speed.

Between 1820 and 1860, however, business chafed at these restrictions, which limited the building of railroads, the time allowed to build them, and their potential for profit. Because it took time and money to apply for a charter and push it through the legislative process, only the rich could afford to obtain charters-or so reasoned the frontiersmen and other relatively poor people who sought to open their own businesses in undeveloped regions. By the 1840s changes in the law and in Supreme Court interpretation of the law helped railroads and other business ventures throw off many legal controls and operate in a "wilderness" of law as well as geography. By 1860 the economic promise of railroading had brought about fundamental changes in state laws, all of which reduced the authority of the states to control and regulate business and speeded national economic development.

One such change, occurring over several decades, ended the issuance of charters by special act of the state legislatures. This made it much easier for any individual or group to found a public corporation such as a railroad, and eliminated the need for state legislatures to debate the terms of each incorporation. Railroad interests played a central role in pressuring many state legislatures to eliminate the charter system and open transportation routes to competing lines, a change which sometimes resulted in two, three, or more railroads serving the same routes, and eventually brought the country far more railroads than it really needed.

Another change in the law ended state power to confer a monopoly of business. The Erie Canal, for example, by the terms of its state charter, retained a monopoly of the transportation business between the Hudson River and Lake Erie. Monopolies of this type were intended to limit wasteful duplication of services and ensure that canals, railroads, and toll bridges operated in a manner consistent with the public interest. But the monopoly provision became difficult to maintain as the railroad proved to be a faster and more efficient carrier than a canal boat. Supreme Court decisions, particularly the Charles River Bridge case, finally ended the early power of states to confer monopolies on the canals and early railroads through charters.

A third change involved the degree of authority the state retained when it issued a charter. Many state legislators of the 1820s and 1830s assumed that when they chartered a business, they retained the authority ultimately to repossess it and run it themselves. The Supreme Court had called this authority into question in the famous Dartmouth College Case of 1819, asserting that any business, once chartered, was a separate and private entity, to be run by those who received the charter and not by those who granted it. In the long run the authority of the state succumbed to the interests of private enterprise.

Some states, even before these changes, did not allow railroads to operate as separately chartered businesses. They put them under the control of a state internal improvements commission. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to do this. By this tactic its state legislature hoped to promote orderly railroad building, without overlapping services, in a manner consistent with the public interest. No such state-controlled railroad remained solvent, however, and within years states sold their railroads to individuals who incorporated them as businesses and ran them for profit.

The internal improvements commission appointed by the Pennsylvania state legislature was originally established to oversee the state's canal traffic. It took on responsibility for the state's railroads during the period 1827 to 1842. During the late 1820s the commission authorized geographical surveys for a railroad to head west from Philadelphia, which became known as the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad. The commission determined the location of all early railroad lines in the state, sold the bonds that funded construction, and oversaw the building of the roads. It also had responsibility for regulating traffic on the lines, because the railroad cars themselves were privately owned. An early compilation of canal and railroad regulations reveals some of the conditions that governed freight and passenger traffic on Pennsylvania's state-owned transportation system. The state controlled such matters as the speed of trains, tolls to be charged for use of the track, safety considerations such as the need to enclose all lamp and lantern flames, and the order of priority of different types of trains using the track.

The state-appointed Superintendents of Transportation of Motive Power also determined each train's time of departure, and decided which trains would be allowed to pass on the single track while others waited on a siding. Mail cars were given priority, followed by passenger cars and "burden" or freight cars, in the "starting, passing and turning out of trains." The Superintendents required these different types of trains to obey different speed regulations. Mail and passenger trains could not legally exceed a speed of eighteen miles per hour; the slower burden trains were limited to a speed of ten miles per hour. All trains had to proceed even more slowly when crossing wooden bridges and viaducts, notorious for their weakness in pre-Civil War America.

The owners or their appointed "conductors" had to accompany the railroad cars and take responsibility for them. These early conductors, not in the pay of a railroad company at all, took responsibility for collecting fares and state tolls for the use of track, submitting these receipts to the state commission, and for keeping order in the cars. A single train might consist of several sets of privately owned cars, each under the authority of its own conductor.

The Pennsylvania commission's agents set railroad fares that varied according to the age of the passenger and the weight of luggage or freight. Any passenger over twelve paid a penny a mile; children aged six to twelve paid half a penny per mile. Weight considerations were important because the load had to be sufficiently light for the lightweight steam locomotives to haul. Nevertheless, the commission determined that "Fifty pounds of baggage will be allowed to each passenger free of charge." Every twenty-five pounds beyond that limit cost one mill (a tenth of a cent).

"Freight" carried by train frequently consisted not of products for market but of heavy and unwieldy "agricultural implements, carts, wagons, sleighs, ploughs and mechanics' tools" which emigrants needed to earn a living. When accompanied by the owner, each thousand pounds of this type of freight cost one cent per mile. All other items except glassware cost less than two cents per mile per thousand pounds.

In the state of New York, railroads were operated by businessmen, not by the state. But a debate raged nevertheless-mostly in the 1840s-as to the extent of state control over businesses it chartered. In the end, the state backed off, allowing railroad entrepreneurs a much freer rein in the location of track and the quality of transportation services.

One of the first three states to boast a passenger railroad, New York saw the opening of its Mohawk and Hudson line in 1831, connecting the Hudson and Mohawk rivers west of Albany. By 1841 seven short lines formed a "continuous chain" from the Hudson to Lake Erie. While none of these lines seriously compromised the monopoly of the parallel Erie Canal, together they had the potential to take away canal business. And each of the railroads had been granted a monopoly by state charter over transportation in its separate region.


Excerpted from PASSAGE TO UNION by SARAH H. GORDON Copyright © 1997 by Sarah H. Gordon. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sarah Gordon teaches American history at the Tikvah High School for Girls and Quinnipiac College, both in Connecticut.

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