Railroads and the American People

Railroads and the American People

Railroads and the American People

Railroads and the American People

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

For more than 150 years, railroads have exerted a pronounced influence on the American people. The iron horse literally became the engine for development and general well-being. By routinizing movements of raw materials, goods, and people, railroads orchestrated the growth of the national economy. In The House of Seven Gables (1851) Nathaniel Hawthorne said it well: “Railroads are positively the greatest blessing that the ages have wrought out for us. They give us wings; they annihilate the toil and dust of pilgrimage; they spiritualize travel!” President Warren G. Harding, a man not remembered for his insightful comments, sensed the value of improved transportation. “For the whole problem of civilization,” he told a crowd assembled for the formal dedication of the government-built Alaska Railroad in July 1923, “the development of resources and the awaking of communities lies in transportation.” It can be reasonably argued that if any area explains American greatness, it has been transportation.

By the end of the nineteenth century the “Railway Age” had matured in the United States. Yet line construction continued, especially on the Great Plains. In 1880 national mileage stood at 92,147; a decade later, after a frenzy of construction, it soared to 163,359, and in 1916 it peaked at 254,251, creating enough route miles to circle the earth ten times. By World War I states such as Illinois, Iowa, and Ohio claimed mileage that was so dense that small communities might have two or more carriers. Then the abandonment process began, particularly among the weakest shortlines, centered initially in the Midwest and South.

The expectations of pioneer “rail road” proponents mostly materialized. When on October 1, 1833, Elias Horry, president of the SouthCarolina Canal & Rail-Road Company, addressed a Charleston audience about the impact of the opening of his 136-mile road between that city and Hamburg on the fall line of the Savannah River opposite Augusta . . .

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