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The West the Railroads Made

The West the Railroads Made

5.0 1
by Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes, James P. Ronda

Named an "Outstanding Title" in University Press Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries, 2009

America's Railroad Age was little more than a decade old when Ralph Waldo Emerson uttered these prophetic words: "Railroad iron is a magician's rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water." Railroads exercised a remarkable hold on the


Named an "Outstanding Title" in University Press Books for Public and Secondary School Libraries, 2009

America's Railroad Age was little more than a decade old when Ralph Waldo Emerson uttered these prophetic words: "Railroad iron is a magician's rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water." Railroads exercised a remarkable hold on the imagination. The railroad was not merely transportation; it was a technology that promised to transform the world. Railroads were second only to the federal government in shaping the West, and nowhere was that shaping more visible than on the Great Plains and in large parts of the Pacific Northwest.

The West the Railroads Made recounts the stories of visionaries such as Henry Harmon Spalding, Samuel Parker, and Asa Whitney, who imagined the railroad as a new Northwest Passage, an iron road through the West to the Orient. As the idea of a Pacific Railroad grew in the 1840s and 1850s, many Americans imagined the West as a fertile garden or a treasure chest of priceless minerals. Railroads could deliver the riches of that West into the hands and pockets of the modern world. These two compelling ideas—the railroad and the West—came together to create an irresistible dream. Filled with contemporary accounts, illustrations, and photographs, The West the Railroads Made offers a fresh look at what the iron road created.

If railroads brought the West into the world, they also brought the world to the West. In less than half a century, railroads made the West a permanent extension of the modern, capitalist world. Washington Territory governor Marshall F. Moore got it right when he described railroads as the "vast machinery for the building up of empires." The West the Railroads Made portrays the size and complexity of that railroad empire. Railroads brought immigrants by the thousands, forever changing the character of the West's human population. Railroads also promoted agriculture, ranching, and mining on a grand scale. They constructed their own landscapes filled with depots, roundhouses, bridges, and tunnels. Through the depot came mail-order treasures, the latest newspapers, and letters from distant friends. Beyond the right-of-way, the presence of the railroad was felt every day in hundreds of small towns.

The railroad West sprang to life with amazing speed. Overnight a windswept stretch of Wyoming became Cheyenne. Prairies were fenced or plowed to make rangeland or farmland. New plants and animals shoved aside those that did not fit marketplace needs. All of this was touted as the new West, the railroad West. But all too often, the railroad West promised prosperity and security but delivered hard times and bitterness. By the middle of the twentieth century, many parts of the West were filled with empty farmhouses, nearly abandoned towns, and boarded-up stations.

For more than a century the American West was the Railroad West. While the railroad's influence was challenged in the twentieth century by automobiles and the interstate highway system, railroads did not vanish from the landscape. Instead, they reinvented themselves. Companies merged to create superrailroads, service on unprofitable routes was ended, and trademark passenger trains vanished. In their place came mile-long trains hauling coal, grain, and lumber. Containers stacked with consumer goods from Asia rode on tracks that were the modern version of the Northwest Passage. The iron road had once defined the West; now it was part of a larger landscape.

Editorial Reviews

Canadian Journal of History
Tthis scholarly duo has crafted and illustrated their engaging narrative from an impressive array of primary records, account books, colourful broadsides, pamphlets, maps, postcards, newspapers, and photographs to chronicle the struggles and triumphs of the railroad in shaping the West.

Great Plains Quarterly
This superbly illustrated book shows how railroads shaped the Plains and mountain states.

Montana: The Magazine of Western History
Lavishly illustrated, well-written, and superbly printed, The West the Railroads Made is a work of art in and of itself, and its conceptualization of the railroads and their imprint on time, art, community, and regional development over the span of roughly 150 years is both well done and thought provoking.

Western Historical Quarterly - Richard White
An impressively smart and lavishly illustrated survey of the impact of the railroads on the American West. Schwantes and Ronda are reliably astute and admirably fair. They have produced a volume that goes well beyond description, and is a wonderful guide for thinking with and about railroads.

Nebraska History
At first glance it may appear that this volume is one more in a line of celebratory tributes to the power of the industry, full of the colorful advertisements and optimistic tributes to the railroad as the builder of civilization across a majestic landscape. Nearly every page contains an illustration that invites quick perusal. But the text skillfully interprets the images and balances the story that railroads originally told about the region, one that boosted their properties and promoted settlement and travels along their lines . . . . The authors have effectively distilled a large body of historiography into one readable and engaging volume.

Pacific Northwest Quarterly
The West the Railroads Made is a book that will be of interest to railroad buffs, the general public, and scholars alike, and it does a good job of explaining the many changes the railroads brought to the region.

Technology and Culture
This lavishly appointed book showcases the fabulously rich holdings of the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library houses within the St. Louis Mercantile Library . . . . The West the Railroads Made is a delightful read and a valuable resource that belongs in the personal libraries of railroad aficionados everywhere, scholars and buffs alike.

Oregon Historical Quarterly
The compelling narrative and stunning illustrations will appeal to all readers. Schwantes and Ronda are to be congratulated for having given general readers and scholars alike this thoughtful and beautiful reminder that not all truly revolutionary technologies are current ones, that in their century railroads worked a magic every bit as transformative of life and economy as today's computers. Perhaps there is something in that for all of us to learn.

Great Northern in the News
From the University of Washington Press comes this definitive book about the role of the railroads in the development of the American West. In The West the Railroads Made authors Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda combine their vast knowledge of the history of the American West highlighting all the important roles of the railroads.

While no single volume of this size can capture all the influences of railroads in the western US, this book should serve as a general overview and introduction to the subject.

Product Details

University of Washington Press and Washington State Historical Society and the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library at the St. Louis Mercantile Library - University of Missouri
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Carlos Schwantes is St. Louis Mercantile Library Endowed Professor of Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, specializing in the history of the twentieth-century American West. He is author of Going Places: Transportation Redefines the Twentieth-Century West and Railroad Signatures across the Pacific Northwest. James P. Ronda holds the H. G. Barnard Chair in Western American History at the University of Tulsa, specializing in the history of exploration of the American West. He is the author of Beyond Lewis and Clark: The Army Explores the West and Jefferson's West: A Journey with Lewis and Clark.

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The West the Railroads Made 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Henry_Berry More than 1 year ago
More than any other single factor, railroads made the West the way it was and is in many respects today. The Federal government undeniably had a major role too. But the Louisiana Purchase, offers of free land, troops for security, and such, were government measures related mostly to setting the stage. It was the railroads which accounted for the details of Western development details which caused settlers to lead their lives in certain ways and make decisions about which opportunities to pursue. Thus did the railroads play an incomparable role in how the West was developed. 'The railroad was foreground, everything else was background,' is the way the authors put it. The co-authors steeped in Western history with academic and professional backgrounds go into all aspects of the railroad's effects. Railroad lines not only determined the location of towns, but also the layout of them. In their earliest stages, roads in Western towns were oriented toward the railroad depot. Furthermore, the railroad depot was the first experience settlers and immigrants had of a town and as a place for the receiving and shipping of goods, a town's economy and in some cases its existence depended on the depot. Railroads adapted as they changed the West by their presence. The original few early lines tied all parts of the West together internally and with the cities and states of the eastern parts. The value of land, the farms growing corn and wheat in such quantities that it affected the diet of all Americans, mountains of ore for Midwestern and Northern factories, and transport of large numbers of persons for rapid growth in many inviting areas were all major economic and sociological developments directly related to the railroads. As the West became more developed and their original roles faded, the railroads adapted by promoting tourism based on the natural wonders of the West and travel to major cities and other vacation areas. The work is based on innumerable facts colorfully related which facts were taken from the authors' scholarly knowledge and interest in Western history. Another part of the book's popular style are the hundreds of illustrations enhancing the text. A map of one early Western town, for instance, demonstrates the town's streets leading in straight lines from the railroad depot so people and goods can move easily to and from this hub. Color travel posters complement text on the different railroad lines' playing up the West as a tourist destination. Railroad documents, prints, and photographs are other sorts of illustrated materials. The assorted visual matter is so bountiful it spills over into the back matter of notes, bibliography, and index.