The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America

The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America

by Christian Wolmar

Paperback(First Trade Paper Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


America was made by the railroads. The opening of the Baltimore & Ohio line––the first American railroad––in the 1830s sparked a national revolution in the way that people lived thanks to the speed and convenience of train travel. Promoted by visionaries and built through heroic effort, the American railroad network was bigger in every sense than Europe’s, and facilitated everything from long-distance travel to commuting and transporting goods to waging war. It united far-flung parts of the country, boosted economic development, and was the catalyst for America’s rise to world-power status.

Every American town, great or small, aspired to be connected to a railroad and by the turn of the century, almost every American lived within easy access of a station. By the early 1900s, the United States was covered in a latticework of more than 200,000 miles of railroad track and a series of magisterial termini, all built and controlled by the biggest corporations in the land. The railroads dominated the American landscape for more than a hundred years but by the middle of the twentieth century, the automobile, the truck, and the airplane had eclipsed the railroads and the nation started to forget them.  

In The Great Railroad Revolution, renowned railroad expert Christian Wolmar tells the extraordinary story of the rise and the fall of the greatest of all American endeavors, and argues that the time has come for America to reclaim and celebrate its often-overlooked rail heritage.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610393478
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 10/08/2013
Edition description: First Trade Paper Edition
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 236,507
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Christian Wolmar is a writer and broadcaster, specializing in transportation matters. He has written for major British newspapers for many years and has contributed to many other publications, including the New York Times and Newsday. His most recent books are Blood, Iron, and Gold and Engines of War.


Table of Contents

List of Maps and Illustrations vii

Maps x

Introduction xix

1 The Railroads Win Out 1

2 A Passionate Affair 25

3 The Railroads Take Hold 51

4 The Battle Lines 89

5 Harnessing the Elephant 121

6 Railroads to Everywhere 159

7 Getting Better All the Time 181

8 The End of the Affair 215

9 All Kinds of Train 259

10 The Roots of Decline 293

11 A Narrow Escape 321

13 Renaissance without Passengers 341

Notes 362

A Note on Sources 379

Index 383

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Daily Telegraph (UK)
“This is the ninth book that Wolmar has written about trains of various kinds.  It is certainly among the best, incorporating, alongside some gripping and downright bizarre reports upon a century-long stretch of vastly improved transport and soaring economic growth… an account of the ‘sheer, almost unbelievable scale of corruption and graft’ from which brutal opportunists like Huntington, Stanford and Gould minted their undeserved millions... Enjoyably anecdotal.”

Sunday Times (UK)"(A) passionate and masterly history." The Guardian“Christian Wolmar is in love with railways. He writes constantly and passionately about them. He is their wisest, most detailed historian and a constant prophet of their rebirth. So America, from 1830 on, from a few, tentative miles of track to a quarter of a million miles only 80 years later, is a story that grips his imagination… the tangle of failure, frailty and faint-heartedness he unpicks here goes far beyond mere romance: it resonates and crosses borders of national experience; it tells us something vital about the nature of railways we still struggle to learn to this day… If you love the hum of the wheels and of history, then Christian Wolmar is your man.”

Camden  New Journal (London, UK) “In his new book, his ninth, a comprehensive, compulsive and compelling epic story of the American railroad, Christian Wolmar reveals how that revolution actually fuelled the nation’s rise to a world-status power with its new found ability to glue itself together into a cohesive economic force…. Wolmar’s magnificent saga tells graphically how it all happened, then collapsed as man’s love affair with trains transferred first to cars, then to airplanes and possibly next lock on to rockets into space….What is outstanding in his fascinating research is the detail, an encyclopedia of railway lore, myth and anecdote that could – and has – sustained many a film, TV series and novel.”

Publishers Weekly
“In a volume that will delight train buffs—and hopefully others—English historian and railway expert Wolmar… examines the rise and fall of railroads in America, with a detailed look at how they influenced and directed the growth of the country for more than a century. …The end result is a fascinating, even indispensable look at one of America’s essential historical components."

Kirkus Reviews
“Wolmar, it seems, has no purpose other than crafting a critical but admiring study of a triumph of engineering, and in this he has succeeded. A solid and, yes, concise look at the railroad’s past, with a rousing call at the end for a new and improved rail system to carry the nation forward.”

“Wolmar is clearly in love with his subject—it’s easy to imagine him as a sort of walking encyclopedia of railroad lore—and his enthusiasm for his material shines through on every page. He finds the decline and increasing irrelevance of the railroad—especially the passenger rails—a deeply saddening aspect of contemporary life, and he makes a convincing case that, in losing rail travel as a fundamental human experience, we’ve lost a hugely important part of ourselves and our history.”

Australian Financial Review
“Without the railroads, Wolmar contends, there would have been no United States. … The really interesting suggestion is that robber barons are a necessary evil, the drivers stoking the engine of American capitalism.”

Wall Street Journal“’The Great Railroad Revolution’ succeeds in showing how, ‘without the railroads, the United States would not have become the United States.’”

Christian Science Monitor“Readers… get to take a broad voyage through railroad vs. railroad battles (even including espionage), the Civil War (in which trains were crucial), and the ultimate decline of trains.”
Library Journal
“As he did for global railroad history in his Blood, Iron, and Gold, Wolmar masterfully condenses the history of American rail into a lively and lucid work that is highly recommended to all.”

Washington Independent Review of Books”Wolmar clearly wishes the railroads had remained more of a social, economic and transportation force in the United States. His fine book will likely make many feel the same way.”

The New Yorker“Wolmar’s sweeping history of railroads in America is rich in drama…He makes a good case that the rail system helped create not only America’s economy but its character.”

Oxford Times“Above it all is the pioneering vision that grips the reader. Wolmar is so passionate about his subject that one cannot help but be swept along. Certainly there was romance and great adventure, but this is also a story of danger as each section was laid across trestled bridge and wilderness.”

Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“A highly readable history of an industry that helped make America great.”

Providence Journal by Edward Achorn“Nevertheless, the book — which captures the grand sweep of the railroads' story from the beginning — is hardly a screed against government intervention in railroads. To the contrary.”

Fredericksburg, VA Freelance-Star“As a concise history of American railroads…it’s an interesting trip.”

Customer Reviews