How the rail­road changed a nation

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

His­tory has pic­tured the great rail­road­driv­en19th cen­tury set­tle­ment of the deserts, moun­tains and flat­lands of the Amer­i­can West as a mixed bless­ing.

The rail­road barons of the era were de­vi­ous and knew how to cut eth­i­cal corners, but they achieved the no­ble end re­sult of bring­ing our then-very-young nation to­gether, much to our eco­nomic and cul­tural ben­e­fit to this day.

Richard White is hav­ing none of that “on the other hand” judg­ment. In his “Rail­roaded: The Transcontinentals and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Amer­ica,” the au­thor be­lieves the ven­ture was, in fact, the nation’s folly given the greed and corruption in­volved. He also con­cludes the pro­ject it­self was ill-ad­vised, a waste of tax­pay­ers’ money.

What­ever one thinks of Mr. White’s gen­eral out­look, there is no deny­ing his schol­ar­ship, as one would ex­pect from a past pres­i­dent of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can His­to­ri­ans, and a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford Univer­sity (whose founder Le­land Stan­ford is a cul­prit in Mr. White’s nar­ra­tive).

The au­thor ap­par­ently tracked down nearly ev­ery trans­ac­tion, both over and un­der the ta­ble that in any way con­cerned this pro­ject that shaped the United States, ul­ti­mately fa­cil­i­tat­ing its emer­gence as a world power.

In ad­di­tion to eth­i­cal short­cuts, the pres­sure was on to pro­ceed in haste. That re­sulted in shoddy work, much of which had to be re­done, as the ma­jor play­ers lined their pock­ets. They re­peat­edly told them­selves they de­served it. As the au­thor writes: “[Col­lis P.] Hunt­ing­ton [a power in the Cen­tral Pa­cific, one of two com­pa­nies in­volved in the first transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­way] in­sisted that the As­so­ciates [four pro­ject in­sid­ers] never of­fered bribes for of­fi­cial fa­vors, and this was a lie; what he meant was that they did not bribe friends. . . . Friends re­cip­ro­cated fa­vors.” Of course, when the cor­rupt are in power, he added, “bribery may be the last and only means left to hon­est men.”

Such cyn­i­cism was an un­der- ly­ing fac­tor in the cre­ation of the firm Credit Mo­bilier, which (mak­ing a long story fit lim­ited space) was the pro­ject’s cash cow (money laun­derer in to­day’s lan­guage). That com­pany was the means through which the thinly dis­guised pay­offs went to the lawmakers who voted on rail­road sub­si­dies. Many of the un­eth­i­cal meth­ods uti­lized were ac­tu­ally legal, in­di­cat­ing that there was more to the “wild un­tamed West” than that de­picted in Hol­ly­wood’s Grade B giddyup West- ern movies.

Ul­ti­mately, the scan­dal be­came an is­sue in the 1872 elec­tion, and Mas­sachusetts Rep. Oakes Ames, who had sold com­pany stock to many of his col­leagues at cut rates, be­came the fall guy when he was cen­sured by the House.

Much of the fo­cus in the Credit Mo­bilier scan­dal is di­rected to­ward the Union Pa­cific, which built the east­ern half of the first transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road west­ward from Omaha to meet up with the afore­men­tioned Cen­tral Pa­cific, which built east­ward from Cal­i­for­nia. The re­sult was the fa­mous driv­ing of the spike when the two projects met at Promon­tory Point in Utah.

Many of the au­thor’s find­ings spot­light in­com­pe­tence on the part of the rail ty­coons con­nected with the Union Pa­cific-Cen­tral Pa­cific al­liance. His vil­lains also in­clude the likes of Jay Cooke and Henry Vil­lard of North­ern Pa­cific, as well as bankers and ex­ec­u­tives con­nected in one way or an­other with the Atchi­son, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Rail­way, and the list goes on.

Even James J. Hill, the “Em­pire Builder” him­self, does not es­cape this vol­ume en­tirely un­scathed, not­with­stand­ing that he built the Great North­ern Rail­way with no di­rect gov­ern­ment sub­si­dies and took care to make cer­tain only qual­ity ma­te­rial went into the line’s con­struc­tion.

And here one con­cludes with a split judg­ment on the book: The re­search and schol­ar­ship are first-rate. Some of the au­thor’s con­clu­sions are de­bat­able.

“The is­sue,” he tells us, “is not whether transcontinentals even­tu­ally proved to be a good idea; it is whether they were a good idea in the mid and late nine­teenth cen­tury.”

Per­haps one might also say the 20th-cen­tury in­ter­state high­way sys­tem should not have been built un­til there were rest stops, restau­rants and mo­tels to ac­com­mo­date the mo­torists.

Later, as the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion ma­tured, laws and reg­u­la­tions were put in place to avoid fu­ture Credit Mo­bilier-like scan­dals.

With ex­pe­ri­ence as the teacher, the ques­tion arises: To what ex­tent is it en­tirely fair to judge the past through the eyes of the present?

Over­all, Mr. White has given us an ex­cel­lent ref­er­ence work for the ori­gins of the rail­roads that fa­cil­i­tated ex­panded com­merce in a grow­ing nation.

Wes Ver­non writes a col­umn for Re­newAmer­ica.com and a railin­dus­try col­umn for Rail­fan and Rail­road mag­a­zine.

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