It’s accepted faith that the railroads helped build the American industrial economy with their push toward transcontinental networks. The driving of the Golden Spike, after all, is one of the iconic moments of the United States expansion westward in the 19th century.
Richard White says that’s all wrong.
His new book, Railroaded — The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, looks to debunk the sepia-toned view of rail history, portraying the expansion instead as a relentless push across the country driven by greed and funded by robber barons and by enormous and ill-advised public subsidies.
White drives toward a strong conclusion, compiling damning portraits of men such as Charles Francis Adams Jr. and Jay Gould, the chiefs of the Union Pacific at the time of the railroad’s greatest growth, and of the miserable Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific.
Of course, no one has ever mistaken those railroad men and their financial backers as anything but tough-minded businessmen who didn’t reflect much on choices between corporate profits and any sort of deeper humanity. Children play with toy trains, after all, not Jay Gould action figures.
But White’s deeper observation ties the railroads’ growth to the larger economic history of the United States and the legacy they’ve given the country.
"The issue is not whether railroads should have been built. The issue is whether they should have been built when and where they were built. And to these questions the answer seems no,” he writes.
That seems too easy a conclusion to come to a century and a few years more after the fact, and White seems to imagine a different country than the one Americans live in today.
But the United States is still looking at rail investment, and at whether public subsidy will truly benefit the public and not only railroads and their shareholders. That’s an important question to ask. And it’s great that Huntington and Gould are not coming up with the answers.