When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment : Western United States

When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment : Western United States

When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment : Western United States

When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment : Western United States

Synopsis

The history of the American West is an epic tale richly accompanied by railroads. From the Illinois prairie to the shores of Oahu, many legendary rail lines are now just dusty trails bereft of their former significance. These abandoned routes show the profound changes that affect the way we travel and conduct business. Through the use of maps, photographs, and a fast-moving narrative, Schwieterman illustrates the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of rail service in fifty-eight communities distinguished for their notable railroad histories.

Excerpt

Imagine the interstate highway grown quiet, its broad pavement cracked, buried in weeds, and traversed by one or two vehicles a week. Abandoned by automobiles and buses, the derelict roadway carries only the rare eighteen-wheel truck creeping along at 15 miles an hour. Gleaming green signs, mowed shoulders, and painted bridges shimmer in some distant past almost impossible to discern; these roadside accessories stand rusted, if they stand at all. Hunters and hikers walk in the linear forest that replaced the grassy shoulders long ago. The scenario is difficult to imagine, but decades ago many Americans faced a nearly identical one as railroad abandonment transformed the landscape and culture of many communities.

If the interstate highway system did shrivel, then disappear, what of the interchange businesses once dependent on it? Gas stations, truck stops, fast-food restaurants, and motels all depend on a steady flow of traffic along both the great highway and the state or county road crossing it at right angles. These businesses employ people who live nearby, and the people in turn need services, from doctors and teachers to plumbers and house painters. Do the people move away, abandoning their homes and businesses, or do they adjust and prosper, or at least endure?

In so many communities across the United States, a casual stroll brings the thoughtful observer in contact with remnants of railroad corridors. Here and there, the walker finds parallel steel rails embedded in the asphalt of a rarely used road, an old depot used to shelter grain or law offices, or a ribbon of gravel and crushed-rock ballast winding behind warehouses, feed mills, and the new discount department store at the edge of town.

Long ago passenger and freight trains arrived in clouds of steam and glamour. When rails formed the only regularly used long-distance connection between towns, everyone understood that news and novelty arrived by train. The long-distance luxury express, the local passenger train linking adjacent towns, even the slow-moving freight train, all moved in a corridor shimmering with technological advancement and urbane allure. Electrically illuminated when small towns still burned kerosene, the passenger express swept urban passengers, newspapers, cuisine, and fashion past awestruck townspeople. The disjunction between metropolitan glamour and small-town and rural ordinariness made everyone conscious of the importance and seeming permanence of corridors now scarcely discernible to motorists.

Railroads served towns in many ways. Resort towns attracted railroads that ferried tourists, and mining camps drew railroads that lugged out ore. Logging railroads meandered toward logging camps, but the agricultural railroads tended to run ruler straight, punctuated by depots and grain elevators every 10 miles or so, the distance a farmer might move grain by wagon over poor roads. The railroad often preceded towns, and the railroad companies colonized the grasslands and plains with . . .

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