Railroads and the American People

Railroads and the American People

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by H. Roger Grant

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In this social history of the impact of railroads on American life, H. Roger Grant concentrates on the railroad’s "golden age," 1830-1930. To capture the essence of the nation’s railroad experience, Grant explores four fundamental topics—trains and travel, train stations, railroads and community life, and the legacy of railroading in

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In this social history of the impact of railroads on American life, H. Roger Grant concentrates on the railroad’s "golden age," 1830-1930. To capture the essence of the nation’s railroad experience, Grant explores four fundamental topics—trains and travel, train stations, railroads and community life, and the legacy of railroading in America—illustrating each topic with carefully chosen period illustrations. Grant recalls the lasting memories left by train travel, both of luxurious Pullman cars and the grit and grind of coal-powered locals. He discusses the important role railroads played for towns and cities across America, not only for the access they provided to distant places and distant markets but also for the depots that were a focus of community life. Finally, Grant reviews the lasting heritage of the railroads as it has been preserved in word, stone, paint, and memory. Railroads and the American People is a sparkling paean to American railroading by one of its finest historians.

Indiana University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this delightful and informative study, Clemson University historian Grant (Iowa’s Railroads) explores America’s “love affair with the iron horse,” approaching the subject from a primarily social viewpoint. Drawing from memoirs and anecdotes supplemented with hundreds of photos and reproductions, Grant covers the golden age of railroading (1830–1930) plus the last heyday of the ’40s and ’50s. He shows just how the railroads influenced and shaped the country, even as they evolved over time. In the first section, the author covers the development, design, and culture of the actual rolling stock. The “Stations” chapter is all about the depots and buildings that serviced and expanded the industry. In “Communities,” Grant delves into the love/hate relationship Americans have had with trains. Finally, “Legacy” explores the many ways in which the railroads left indelible marks on American society, from place names to common idioms. With plenty of detail, Grant brings a bygone era back to life, addressing everything from social and commercial appeal, racial and gender issues, safety concerns, and leaps in technology. But Grant never loses sight of the big picture and the essential role the railroads played in American life. He writes with authority and clarity in a work that can appeal to both casual and hardcore enthusiasts. (Oct.)
Wall Street Journal

"With its wealth of vignettes and more than 100 black-and-white illustrations, Railroads and the American People does a fine job of humanizing the iron horse." —Wall Street Journal

John White

"Is it necessary to comment on an established author such as Roger Grant. Heavens, he is a fine scholar and writes better than Hemingway!" —John White, author of The American Railroad Passenger Car


"Railroad historian Grant... has written an engaging book of train stories, detailing their social influence from 1830 to 1930.... Highly recommended.
" —Choice

Indiana Magazine of History

"Read this book slowly, allowing the wealth of detail—which is the book’s great strength—time to sink in. You will find yourself thinking about certain details after hours, each reader resonating with some different aspect of the map Grant creates. Re-reading, some other aspect will surface.... Grant’s book leaves you wishing for more." —Indiana Magazine of History

From the Publisher

"Consisting of hundreds of vignettes containing a wealth of detailed descriptions and remembrances, Grant’s work is highly recommended to train buffs and others in love with early railroading." —LIBRARY JOURNAL

Library Journal
Grant (history, Clemson Univ.) takes a topical approach in his social history of the Golden Age of American railroads, from 1830 to 1930. Chapters cover trains, stations, communities, and the railroad's legacies. Grant's use of numerous period quotes, some lengthy, enliven and contextualize his text, as do scores of richly captioned illustrations. He covers topics such as the controversy over operating trains on Sundays, railroad memorials, and the roles of railroads during wartime. The railroads were, he shows, integral to the birth, life, and even death of many towns. To confirm the enduring legacy of the railroads, he recounts the origins and growth of the rail hobbyist and railroad preservation movement. VERDICT Consisting of hundreds of vignettes containing a wealth of detailed descriptions and remembrances, Grant's work is highly recommended to train buffs and others in love with early railroading. Readers wishing for a broader approach to American railroads would be well served by Christian Wolmar's superb survey history, reviewed below. The two works complement each other.—Lawrence Maxted, Gannon Univ. Lib., Erie, PA

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Product Details

Indiana University Press
Publication date:
Railroads Past and Present Series
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Product dimensions:
7.20(w) x 10.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Railroads and the American People

By H. Roger Grant

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 H. Roger Grant
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00637-0




From the time that the first train in America turned a wheel, the railroad generated excitement. Powered by its captivating steam locomotive, the moving train was much more than an instrument of progress; it was a true wonder. In his 1876 "To a Locomotive in Winter" poet Walt Whitman captured the essence of the attraction for this mechanical marvel: "The black cylindric body golden brass. Type of the modern-emblem of motion and power – pulse of the continent." An early patron of the Boston & Worcester Rail Road expressed similar thoughts, but in a nonpoetic fashion. "What an object of wonder! How marvelous it is in every particular! It appears like a thing of life. I cannot describe the strange sensations produced on seeing the train of cars come up. And when I started for Boston, it seemed like a dream." In a larger sense "the railroad, animated by its powerful locomotive, appears to be the characteristic personification of the American," concluded Guillaume Poussin, a Frenchman who visited the New World in 1851. "The one seems to hear and understand the other – to have been made for the other – to be indispensable to the other." Even in the recent past the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) engaged jazz musician Lou Rawls to record a commercial that had as its theme "There's something about a train that's magic."

People not only wanted to ride on trains, they also wanted to work on trains. "Trains got in my blood," was a reason frequently repeated by young men who entered road service, "and that's why I went 'railroadin.'" A veteran locomotive engineer explained his love affair with the iron horse:

The first sounds that registered on my ears were the whistles of the New York Central trains hooting for a crossing. They drifted over the hill to the farm, calling me to follow the iron pike. When I was old and sturdy enough to walk six miles to the railroad, I sat on an embankment above the tracks and watched the trains go by, waved to the lordly creatures leaning out of the cab windows, and made up my mind that I too was going to run one of those snorting engines.

A career in railroading offered much. There was daily stimulation in the workplace. Every run provided different experiences, including train volume, track speed, mechanical conditions, weather, and personalities. "The unpredictable happened every day in railroading," said one engineman. Then there existed the sheer excitement, especially the potential for danger before the widespread use of air brakes, automatic couplers, and other safety appliances. There was also prestige and respect: the engineer perched on his thronelike seat with his head leaning out of the locomotive cab as a passenger train glided into a station, and the conductor with his uniform, first consisting of a top coat and silk hat and later a dark uniform with shiny buttons that bore the initials of the railroad company, and a matching cap with a bright brass or polished nickel badge that proclaimed CONDUCTOR. "He is an important personage," commented a Gilded Age traveler, an understatement indeed. Brakemen or trainmen also wore smart uniforms, and they had their positions duly noted on their cap badges. Even crewmen assigned to freight trains were individuals on the move. Like their passenger train brethren, they carried keys, lanterns, company-approved pocket watches, and other tools of their trade. Every trainman understood that his work was vital for national life, and the public sensed that fact as well.

For the one-hundred-plus years of the Railway Age men who ran the trains had similar duties, whether assigned to freight or passenger runs. It would not be until near the end of the twentieth century that the composition of crews changed dramatically, particularly for those railroaders operating freights. Carriers curtailed "featherbedding" practices, unproductive jobs in the day of diesel- electric locomotives that were based on antiquated steam-era work rules. (Today freight crews consist of an engineer and conductor, lacking the traditional firemen and two or more brakemen.) Historically the numbers of train personnel were impressive. Approximately 40 percent of all railroad employees, totaling more than a million by 1900, worked in train service, and that figure grew until after World War I.

Even a small child recognized the locomotive engineer. He was the man in the cab who controlled the mighty locomotive. Although the youngster would never refer to the engineer as a "labor aristocrat," which he was, he might announce that when he grew up, he wanted to become an engineer or "hogger," the common nickname. Many boys did, especially those who were raised on the farms and ranches. In the nineteenth century and somewhat later a disproportionate number of engineers came from rural backgrounds. They were farm fresh, so to speak. Prestige, compensation, and a fascination for things mechanical influenced that career choice. Then there was the drudgery of agricultural life that made young men crave excitement and travel. Said one engineer: "I sought to escape the monotony and the wretched routine of a drab life." As with all railroaders, there might be a desire to break loose from the watchful eyes of parents, particularly for those young men who would otherwise remain on the family farm. Other hiring patterns came into play. Nepotism, a long-standing feature of railroader recruitment, explains why sons of engineers and others in train service joined the running trades; railroading became a family affair.

Firemen were far less glamorous, in fact unheralded. They were the men on the steam locomotive "deck," heaving cord wood and later scooping coal, or "black diamonds," into the always hungry, demonic firebox. This was backbreaking work. (In the era of wood-burning locomotives, the fireman might receive assistance from a "wood passer," who also helped to replenish the locomotive tender at fuel stops.) "[The fireman] shoveled scoopful after scoopful of coal into the roaring hot firebox, and the glare from the fire would reflect on his hot, red face, and the heat from the open door would start the smoke curling up off his overalls," observed an apprentice fireman. "After closing the door he would step to the gangway between the tank and the engine-cab to one side and lean out to get a breath of fresh air and also to let the draft that sucked through the gangway cool his heated body for a few moments." Another fireman recalled: "It was very hard work then, coal was used and shoveled into the firebox by hand; I have shoveled 15 tons into a firebox on one trip of 12 to 15 hours." Even after the introduction of mechanical coal stokers, the job remained difficult, taking much effort to ensure the steady flow of coal and to prevent and repair equipment breakdowns. Only with the advent of oil-fired steam locomotives, which after the turn of the twentieth century started to appear in the West, did the work of a fireman lessen considerably. Most adults could identify with the rigors associated with hand-firing a boiler; after all, they attended to their domestic fireplaces, wood or coal stoves, or coal furnaces during the heating season. A railroad fireman took pride in his skills to create and maintain a hot, even-burning fire that effectively kept up the required steam pressure.

When not attending to his principal job, a fireman would take his seat on the left-hand side of the cab to assist the engineer with matters of safety, keeping a watchful eye for obstacles on the track, misaligned switches, and other potential dangers. As technologies advanced, he "called signals" and performed other duties.

The fireman and the general public knew that in time he would likely move to the right-hand seat, although some firemen preferred to keep their jobs. And there were those men who never acquired the necessary skills or gained the required seniority to be promoted. If the "fire boy" was a person of color, there was virtually no chance for advancement. After a run – prior to electric and diesel-electric locomotives – firemen were usually covered from head to toe with soot, oil, and grease.

While passenger conductors had a "clean" job (cab crewmen sometimes called them "prissy"), they encountered their own set of tasks and headaches. During the "Demonstration Period" of the 1830s and 1840s newly opened railroads frequently turned to stagecoach drivers to serve as "captains" of their trains. This was a logical decision. It was assumed that these former drivers possessed practical judgment and were fully literate. After all, these men had participated in a transportation system, making certain that equipment functioned properly, attempting to maintain schedules, collecting fares, handling paperwork, and dealing with travelers and company personnel at stops. "Good Whips," in fact, had been an important source of conductors or "guards" on early British passenger trains. Conductors normally gained their position by having been brakemen in passenger service or conductors and brakemen on freight trains.

As the railroad enterprise matured, the passenger train conductor (if there were sleeping cars, the Pullman Company provided its own conductor) found his duties varied. There was that predictable routine: "lifting" and selling tickets, seating passengers, answering questions, calling out stops, assisting passengers to detrain (and at the right station), and turning in cash fares and completing paperwork at the end of the trip. He checked the cleanliness of the cars, made certain that needed supplies for the toilets and other amenities were provided, adjusted lighting and attended to matters of heating and ventilation. The conductor needed to guard against the fraudulent use of passes, tickets, and counterfeit currency, watch out for hoboes and any other nonpaying riders, and keep a lookout for confidence men, including the card shark. He also had to quiet or expel disruptive passengers, usually those under the influence of alcohol. "Maintain good order among the passengers, and not permit rudeness or profanity," demanded the Pennsylvania Railroad. But much more was required. Remarked a conductor in the 1870s: "He should see that no time is lost at stations, have a thorough understanding of his time-card, and all the rules and regulations affecting the duties of employees, an eye to the condition of the track, trestles, bridges, culverts, and embankments." And he added, "He should frequently examine the brakes, couplings, and bell-ropes of his cars; inspect his train before starting; that his watch is in accordance with the railroad standard time; that all the necessary articles for emergencies are on board."

Travelers most of all associated the conductor with announcing the departure of the passenger train. "The most romantic call in America still was 'Booo-ard!" observed an historian of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway (Santa Fe) in the 1940s. "It was sung every day by a thousand conductors, re-echoed by half a million passengers. It was almost the oldest call in the country and to most people it still meant adventure and hope and new horizons."

Occasionally, the unexpected occurred. It might be a cloudburst, blizzard, prairie or forest fire, mechanical breakdown, livestock on the tracks, derailment, or some other happening that slowed or stopped the train. Or it might be an unruly individual or group of passengers or that rare troop of bandits or desperados. The conductor needed to respond quickly and effectively. In 1913 when a boxcar of apples derailed in Malvern, Iowa, the eastern terminus of the Tabor & Northern Railroad, an 11-mile Hawkeye State shortline, the "ever resourceful conductor" handled the situation with dispatch. His train was about to depart for Tabor, but the coach combine was blocked by the apple car. Fortunately the locomotive was positioned correctly, and as a journalist reported: "The conductor just coupled his engine to a box car filled with nice straw, loaded the mail, baggage, passengers, et cetera, all in, a la scrambled eggs fashion, and hit out for Tabor."

Not everyone was overly impressed with conductors, however. "An American conductor is a nondescript being, half clerk, half guard, with a dash of the gentlemen," wrote a grumpy English visitor in the 1850s. "One thing is remarkable about him – you do not get a sight of him till the train is in motion, and when it stops he disappears. I can account for this mysterious feature in his character, only by supposing, that as soon as he touches terra firma, he removes from the front of his hat the word blazoned in metal, which indicates his office; and so all at once becomes an ordinary human being." When the conductor reappeared, this commentator expressed disdain. "All he says is 'Ticket!' and he utters the word in a dry, callous tone, as if it would cost something to be cheerful."

Disputes might erupt between a passenger and a conductor. One such case was described in 1857 by Anna Calhoun Clemson, daughter of the late South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun. She reported that a South Carolina Rail Road conductor "from some unaccountable whim" had refused to allow two passengers to detrain at Penn's Platform near the Clemsons' Low Country plantation. After an unpleasant exchange, he ordered these friends from Washington, D.C., to get off at the depot. The unhappy couple sought to hire a "vehicle, & negro driver" to reach their destination. When that took them only partway because of a swollen river, they had to walk the remaining distance and in the process became "muddied up to their knees." The conductor was in command, even if his decisions might create unintended consequences that hardly enhanced the image of his position or his railroad.

Yet there were highly respected, even beloved, conductors (and other crewmen as well). More likely bonds of affection developed when there was frequent contact, especially on local, branch line, and commuter trains. One such individual was a conductor who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad in northern New Jersey. A favorite patron was financier Pierre Lorillard. In appreciation for the attention paid Lorillard, the conductor received from him a Tiffany-made filigreed, solid gold conductor's badge for his uniform cap. But this prized gift remained in the conductor's bureau drawer; Pennsylvania officials forbade the wearing of this ornamental insignia, calling it "irregular." And for years during the Christmas season, members of the communitarian Amana colonies in Iowa expressed their esteem to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (Milwaukee Road) passenger train conductor and his colleagues "with savory hams, delicious wines and gifts."

The conductor received assistance from "trainmen" – brakemen and flagmen – although the size and nature of the crew varied from train to train, from railroad to railroad, and at times from state to state. Trainmen were apprentice conductors, and their duties ran the gamut from directly assisting the conductor in collecting tickets to calling station stops. Passenger trainmen, though, did not face the rugged and dangerous assignments of their brethren on freight trains, where before air brakes and the limited braking power of locomotives trainmen scrambled over the tops of cars to set and release brakes with their brute strength. Although passenger personnel had braking duties prior to the advent of air brakes, they had only to turn brake wheels on the platforms of the several cars. Similarly, trainmen on "varnish" (passenger) runs were spared the excessive coupling and uncoupling of cars, especially daunting (and dangerous to fingers and hands) in the era of link and pin couplers. Their counterparts on freight trains repeatedly needed to open and close switches, having many more opportunities to "bend the iron."

Coach passengers had contact with conductors and trainmen, and they recognized the presence of engineers and firemen, yet they probably encountered other onboard employees. The tendency of American railroads to lack rigid class accommodations led most travelers to make their trips in a "day coach." Inevitably they became familiar with a young vender, the "news butcher" or "news butch." This entrepreneurial lad, who was not a railroad employee but rather self-employed or representing a commercial news agency, offered passengers reading materials, particularly newspapers, and oddments that included candy, fruit, and cigars. "A great personage on an American train is the newsboy," observed Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer, in his 1892 book, Across the Plains. "He sells books (such books!), papers, fruit, lollipops, and cigars; and on emigrant journeys, soap, towels, tin washing dishes, tin coffee pitchers, coffee, tea, sugar, and tinned eatables, mostly hash or beans and bacon." Tom L. Johnson, the wealthy industrialist and traction magnate and later reform mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, recalled that he became a news butcher at the tender age of eleven after striking up a friendship with a conductor on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in his hometown of Staunton, Virginia. "One day he [conductor] said to me, 'How would you like to sell papers, Tom? I could bring 'em in for you on my train and I wouldn't carry any for anybody else, so you could charge whatever you pleased.'" Explained Johnson:

They're ready to serve. About 1920 Pullman Company personnel assigned to the Baltimore & Ohio's all-Pullman Capitol Limited assemble in Grand Central Station in Chicago. The white Pullman conductor stands on the right and the white barber on the left. Six of the seven people of color are porters, and the seventh, attired in white, is either a bus boy or a lounge attendant.

William Howes Jr. coll.


Excerpted from Railroads and the American People by H. Roger Grant. Copyright © 2012 H. Roger Grant. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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