The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America
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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.
the Pennsylvania.”27 Indeed, the railroads and, crucially, the major owners were becoming increasingly unpopular. Although the more conservative elements of the public generally supported the railroads against the workers, they were very much the minority. Most people’s instinct was to support the little man against the corporation. As the railroads were experiencing their unprecedented boom, they were also accumulating enemies among various groups across the nation, and this mistrust of the
lost favor in the eyes of the public.”16 Every small-town mayor and councilor saw street railroads as the harbinger of growth and prosperity. Initially, their main purpose was to carry commuters to work and back, but soon streetcars were built to connect the city with a host of other destinations: “There were lines running out beyond the suburbs to the countryside, to cemeteries (there were special funeral cars), or to scenic sites for picnics and outings.” The weekend was indeed big business,
years before closure. Even more amazingly, the fourteen-mile Kentwood & Eastern Railroad (showing unfulfilled Eastern rather than Western ambitions for a change) in Louisiana and Mississippi, which had no passenger car, “made a substantial amount of money each year from passenger revenues,” presumably from people sitting in boxcars or the conductor’s caboose, but this was not enough to prevent its closure in 1922.16 There was, of course, one group that was happy to sit in boxcars. There had been
and, after a delay, bused them the rest of the way. The Burlington tried the same trick, forcing its passengers to leave the train at a small town in Nebraska, but failed to notice that one passenger was a congressman—who promptly persuaded the commission to force railroads to give forty-eight hours’ notice of any closure. Others, who had been allowed to end services in one state but not another, just stopped at the boundary, leaving passengers stranded. It was generally not long, of course,
Russia who had enjoyed special exemption from military service, as it was against their nonviolent principles. When this immunity was abolished by the czar in 1870, they needed little persuasion to emigrate to the United States when Carl Schmidt, a German-speaking agent of the Santa Fe, discovered their plight. Schmidt entered Russia disguised as a farm-machinery salesman and visited thirty villages with the aim of convincing the Mennonites that the Kansas plains offered wheat-growing land just