Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

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Overview

A new, incisive history of the transcontinental railroads and how they transformed America in the decades after the Civil War.
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.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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The transcontinental railroads "created modernity as much by their failure as by their success," writes MacArthur fellow and Parkman Prize–winning historian White in this important and deeply researched history. Often poorly built and with no real demand for their services the railroads never paid for themselves and left chaos in their wake—e.g., displaced Native Americans, environmental disaster through encouraging the farming of nonarable land. Experienced railway men weren't interested in investing in transcontinental routes, writes White (The Frontier in American Culture), so six Sacramento businessmen (who formed the Central Pacific) and a slapdash federally chartered corporation (the Union Pacific) took the bait of money and land offered by the federal government. Their first act was to bribe Congress to increase land grants and relax restrictions on raising money. Then the race was on. Readers will be amazed, amused, and disgusted by the antics of obscure and familiar names (Stanford, Huntington, Dodge), mostly ignorant of railroading and spectacularly dishonest. White delivers an opinionated, delightfully witty but astute account of sleazy Gilded Age politics, business, and journalism, as well as the complex (but uncomfortably familiar) financial maneuvers men used to enrich themselves. Maps, charts. (May)
Edward L. Ayers
“This is history as dark comedy, brilliant and unsettling, puncturing facile economics and bland history alike. With ingenious research and iconoclastic perspective, Richard White recasts our understanding of a major chapter in American history. Mark Twain would be bitterly amused to learn just how gilded the Gilded Age really was.”
Patricia Limerick
“Combining a robust wit with a dedication to endless labor in archives, Richard White delivers a sharp-edged new understanding of industrialization in the Gilded Age. Railroaded offers flabbergasting views of the human talent for self-justification and contradiction, provides a valuable—if unsettling—comparison to the financial troubles of our times, and shows why the best historians are compared to detectives. To readers intimidated by the topic of railroad finance: master your fears and stay on board for a very wild ride.”
William Deverell
“This brilliant book will forever change our understanding of the great railroad projects of nineteenth century America. Stripping away easy assumptions of technological triumph and financial wizardry, Railroaded tells a richer and darker story of post-Civil War America. Smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through, this is a powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War.”
William Cronon
“Richard White is one of those rare historians with an unfailing ability to transform any topic he writes about, no matter how familiar that topic might seem. In Railroaded, he tells the story of the western transcontinentals as it has never been told before, with insights that speak as much to our own time as to the nineteenth-century era he explores with such wit and intelligence.”
Geoffrey C. Ward
“There is not a historian in America with a steadier gaze than Richard White’s: with him, no assumption goes unchallenged, no wisdom is ever merely received. Railroaded is a wonderful book: fresh, provocative, witty, filled with foreshadowing of our world but always true to its time, and told with the narrative force of a locomotive roaring across the empty plains.”
Shepard Krech III
“Railroaded is a leviathan, a provocative challenge to a major myth about the American West: that transcontinentals were a triumph of American entrepreneurship and ingenuity, and a godsend to those who invested in, worked on, rode, lived near, or encountered them. Far from it, Richard West argues in a strongly written narrative that barrels along the track as it draws on intimate vignettes of players great and small, these railroads often proved to be a disaster for all but the handful that dreamed them up and, abetted by cronyism and complacent governmental regulation, enriched themselves as they impoverished the rest. This tale of havoc is an unsettling allegory of today's financial collapse and essential reading for all unnerved by the thought that we seem doomed to repeat history whether we are aware of it or not.”
Rebecca Solnit
“When it comes to the American West, there is no other writer like Richard White, a serious scholar with a highly original take on familiar subjects and wit and elegant prose besides. His subject, the making of the transcontinental railroads, is perhaps the pivotal story of the American West, but it’s not the one most of us know from movies and mythologies. It's about the birth of all those things that most trouble us nowadays, a genesis story in which the serpent in Eden is the railroad itself writhing across the continent. A story of corporate power, industrialization, and political corruption, White tells it as it needs to be told.”
Library Journal
White (American history, Stanford Univ.; The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815) takes on the task of explaining the achievements and failings of the few transcontinental railroads that spanned North America in the latter half of the 19th century. He concentrates on their financial, political, and social impact. In clear and often critical terms, he describes the corruption that made the railroad's founders wealthy but hamstrung the companies, the bribes to politicians, the antipathy between management and workers exacerbated by imported Chinese laborers, the antimonopoly movements against railroad practices, and the end of the buffalo and the way of life of Native Americans. By the 19th century's end, White explains, the transcontinentals—built poorly, heavily in debt, and fiercely competitive for sparse business—collapsed financially and brought about the nation's worst financial crisis yet with the Panic of 1893. White does credit the transcontinentals with tying together North America from east to west. VERDICT White's exhaustive study is recommended to serious students. A better choice on the topic for general readers is Walter R. Borneman's Rival Rails: The Race To Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad.—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA
Kirkus Reviews

The railroads may not have advanced civilization in America, notes this sharp-edged history, but they were eminently creative in their destruction.

Latter-day corporatistas will not be pleased with the neo-Marxist slant that eminent historian White (American History/Stanford Univ.; Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family's Past, 1998, etc.) brings to his vigorous account of the 19th-century transcontinental railroads. It is that great scholar of entrepreneurship Joseph Schumpeter whose spirit guides much of White's book, particularly his notion that capitalism involves "creative destruction," the constant uprooting of the old for the new in order to sell it all over again. (Think of CDs replacing LPs, and of MP3s replacing CDs.) In the case of the railroads, the creative destruction involved the replacement of one form of corporation with another—and if, as White argues, the 19th-century railroad corporations almost always went bust in the manner of the dotcoms in our own time, the individuals who controlled those corporations mostly did well for themselves. As he writes, "[t]he celebrated creative destruction of capitalism is, it seems, gentle with the rich," an observation not to be lost in our own time. White peoples the narrative with characters who are fascinating as case studies of the seven deadly sins, such as entrepreneur and wheeler-dealer Tom Scott, who "was not so much tainted by corruption as impregnated with it"; and Samuel Huntington, who railed against Scott for beating him at his own game, complaining that "the devil, the communist, and the Pa. R.R. have united against us." Huntington opposed Leland Stanford, too, but Stanford was a staunch Republican, and the Republican powers that be warned him that if Huntington's opposition cost Stanford his Senate seat, "they would punish Huntington by punishing [his] railroad." And so forth, one alliance conspiring against another—but, as White makes clear, all conspiring to grow rich, and all at the expense of the working people.

Excellent big-picture, popularly written history of the Howard Zinn mold, backed by a mountain of research and statistics.

Michael Kazin
"Transcontinental railroads," [White] asserts in Railroaded, "were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long." This is a bold indictment, but White supports it convincingly with lavish detail and prose that swivels easily from denunciation to irony.
—The New York Times
Scott Martelle
…Richard White's detailed dissection of the rise and eventual fall of the nation's railroads…brings…a fresh and welcome agglomeration of wide-ranging historical detail, including eviscerations of some of the key figures—from Jay Gould to Leland Stanford—and an acute analysis that in failure came success and in many ways the map of the nation.
—The Washington Post
Donald Worster - Slate
“A model of narrative skill and [an] insightful reinterpretation of the Gilded Age. It is easily the best business history I have read.”
Buzzy Jackson - Boston Globe
“Will entertain and outrage readers.”
John Steele Gordon - Wall Street Journal
“An exciting story and well told.”
Glenn C. Altschuler - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Imaginative, iconoclastic, immensely informative and mordantly funny.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393061260
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/31/2011
  • Pages: 660
  • Sales rank: 713,755
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard White, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Parkman Prize, is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xiii

List of Maps and Charts xv

Acknowledgments xvii

Introduction xxi

1 Genesis 1

First Principles 3

Patriotism and Profit 9

The Acts of the Founders 17

Building with Other People's Money 26

Golden Spike 37

A Railroad Life: H. K. Thomas 39

2 Annus Horribilis: 1873 47

Springtime in Mexico 51

Springtime in Canada 55

The Indians' Perpetual Winter 59

Political Storms Brewing 62

Information and Trust 66

The Long Winter 77

Stories of the Fall 84

A Railroad Life: William Hyde 88

3 Friends 93

The Lobby 102

Antimonopoly and Party Politics 109

The Southern Transcontinental 118

Reform in the Gilded Age 130

A Railroad Life: Elias C. Boudinot 134

4 Spatial Politics 140

Absolute Space 142

Relational Space 146

The Things They Carried 152

How Railroad Rates Construct Space 162

The Rise of the Octopus 169

Regulating Space 174

A Railroad Life: Alfred A. Cohen 179

5 Kilkenny Cats 186

Creative Destruction 188

The Colton Trial 197

Territory 203

Rationalizing Irrationality 212

Superheroes of Bad Management 216

A System That Did Not Bury Its Dead 223

Mise en Scène: Labor in Nature 225

6 Men in Octopus Suits 230

The Visible Hand 235

Men and Boys: Manhood and Management 243

A Political Animal 252

Going Off the Tracks 264

A Railroad Life: William Mahl 270

7 Workingmen 278

Control of Work 282

The Knights of Labor 287

Contract Labor and the Chinese 293

Rock Springs 305

Workers' Marginalism 314

A Railroad Life: William Pinkerton 317

8 Looking Backward 326

Benevolent Trusts 332

Waiting for Natural Monopoly 334

Labor's Defeats 336

Bears 347

The Interstate Commerce Commission 355

The Interstate‐Commerce Railway Association 359

Mise en Scène: The Death of Johanna Grogan 366

9 Collapse 370

An Alcoholics Anonymous for Railroads 372

Bankers 378

Villard and Adams 382

The Second Fall of Henry Villard 391

The Panic of 1893 393

The Struggles of the Octopus 398

Mise en Scène: Reading the Newspapers 410

10 Strike 414

The Courts 418

Union Pacific and Great Northern 422

Pullman 429

The Decline of the Octopus 450

Mise en Scène: Following the Detectives 453

11 Creative Destruction 455

Dumb Growth 460

Cattle 466

The Diverging Dakotas 482

Rain Follows the Plow 486

Mise en Scène: Wovoka 496

Epilogue 499

Conclusion 507

Appendix 519

Notes 535

Index 643

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2011

    amazon has it MUCH cheaper

    amazon has their ebook version for almost $10 cheaper than BN, $19.17 vs. $28.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2013

    This book was well researched and very well written. A bit long

    This book was well researched and very well written. A bit long in the tooth as it contained more data and facts than just about any book I have read.

    However, I find it hard to believe that every manager of every railroad was corrupt and that every politician associated with the roads was corrupt. White even blames the roads for the demise of native americans and the buffalo. Due to the author's negative views, it became a tiresome read after awhile.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2012

    Too much information

    The book sounds like the author Richard White has a problem with everything and everybody in America . Way too much information given on certain subjects. He probibly is at one of the occupy wall street camps at this writing.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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