Tuesday, October 18, 2011


“It will make our country the agent and carrier of the commerce of the world; [and] all classes of our country (all who regard its prosperity, all who regard the benefit to their children and their children’s children) [should] rally the [transcontinental] railroad as the great highway of our national prosperity and greatness.” This statement was made in 1856, during a national discussion about whether such a railroad should be constructed. The words sound as if they came from the mouth of a professional politician. Rather, they came from a woman who possessed a stereotypical politician’s qualities. Said to have “a streak of vanity, an imperious nature, and an obsession for power and recognition,” Anna Ella Carroll (1815-1894) was a cunning activist, writer, and informal servant of Abraham Lincoln’s government whose extremely hopeful vision of what a transcontinental railroad would bring to her nation was shared by many Americans. But did her vision come true?

Anna Carroll argued that the transcontinental railroad
would bring benefit after benefit to the United States, and
she foresaw no serious problems. Was she right?

In order to find out, let’s juxtapose her predictions with actual outcomes, beginning with her claim that the railroad would “convey us across the continent to the Bay of San Francisco in seven days.” Such a reality would be remarkable, given that such a journey at that time otherwise took more than a month by boat or stagecoach or about half a year by wagon. And as an added bonus, riding in a railroad passenger car was in many ways safer and more comfortable than the alternatives were. Wagoners, for example, were forced to defend and feed themselves in the wild, and were frequently incapacitated or killed by diseases like cholera, not to mention accidents like gunpowder explosions. Travel by rail also turned out to be much faster, and on great days, trains went as fast as Miss Carroll predicted. But not every day was great.

Weather, especially snow and ice on routes farther north, would sometimes cause very long delays, and shorter delays were caused by the fairly frequent failure of telegraph lines. Native Americans, bands of marauders, and even other railroad companies would also cause hangups by sabotaging tracks. But even when none of these problems were present, railroads still could be quite inefficient, especially when carrying freight. Railroad president William Van Horne (1843-1915) made such an observation upon tracking nine freight cars; he noted that each took between three and seven days to travel 121 miles. The hype of Miss Carroll suggested that such trips should have only taken between one third and one eighth of a day.

Still, the growing transcontinental system of independent railroads reaching across the country was better for travel and commerce than horses and wagons, not only in terms of speed but also in terms of cost. In fact, train freight rates were much lower than those of wagon freight, and trains could travel to all sorts of places unreachable by steamboat or clipper ship. These factors - low costs, high speeds, and growing expansiveness - brought about an increasingly robust continent-wide economy. People and portage moved much more freely over much larger distances than ever before. The world truly shrank.

And in an economic sense, it continued to shrink as time went on (i.e. traveling a hundred miles in 1885 was cheaper than it was in 1870). In fact, between those two dates, rates on both the Central and Northern Pacific declined about 66% in real dollars. This is primarily because the railroads had garnered a large and continuously increasing dominance over national commerce. But this in turn created a new problem, especially for freight producers: railroads were now in a position to manipulate the costs of shipping between two points and thereby manipulate economic distance.

Use the following hypothetical to capture the general reality of the time: farmers in Maizeville and Cornopolis both shipped cobs of corn to Retailtown, from which they were physically equidistant. Overall, shipping rates to Retailtown from Maizeville and Cornopolis declined, which pleased the farmers of both localities. But the rates for the farmers of Cornopolis declined much faster and much further, giving them a competitive advantage over the farmers of Maizeville. And the Maizeville farmers were especially indignant because their new disadvantage was the product of decisions made by railroad managers who were indifferent to their fate and yet wielded the power to decide which localities succeeded economically and which failed. Many other farmers and businessmen were frustrated that the government only increased the power of the railroads by giving them special banking privileges, gigantic land grants totaling 242,000 square miles, military protection, direct subsidies from states and Washington totaling $360 billion over 29 years, huge federal tax exemptions, eminent domain powers, and monopoly protection.

On another economic note, Ms. Carroll predicted that “the poor man will be benefited more than the rich by this road [which will] stop the poor man from working for the pittance he now does.” It should first be noted that by corrupting a significant number of newspapers, railroads were able to promote positive articles and restrict negative one in a way that probably led wealthy investors to make poor decisions. To provide a few major examples, The Sun was in the pocket of the Union Pacific’s Isaac Bromley; The Star was influenced by Collis Huntington (an executive of many railroads), The Stockholder by prominent railroad financier/manager Jay Gould, certain Associated Press reporters by the Albany & Susquehanna’s Richard Franchot, and the Financial Chronicle by whichever monied individual gave it “a reasonable share of advertising.”

The poor and middling settlers who were brought to the West by the rails suffered even more than the investors. Thanks to the transcontinentals, between 1870 and 1890, the number of Western U.S. citizens increased threefold, from ~1,281,000 to ~3,864,000. Some regions saw even larger increases: Nebraska’s population grew eightfold, Washington’s and Colorado’s ninefold. Many settlers made the journey simply because the railroads made it much more plausible and easy; others received encouragement from the transcontinentals’ marketing departments. But whatever their motivation, the location of the railroad strongly influenced where they settled, because railroads connected them to the larger marketplace, making the sale and acquisition of goods easier and cheaper. For the same reason, railroads exerted an even greater force on where Western towns were established. In the words of the Toronto Globe, the managers had “a say in the existence of almost every town or prospective town...Individuals rarely [had] an opportunity of starting a town without their consent and cooperation.”

Many of the people who moved westward became farmers, and yet there wasn’t a single year between 1884 and 1906 where the income of the average farmer exceeded his expenditures. Why? Some blame the fact that the railroads convinced some new farmers to settle on arid land because it was near the tracks. But much more importantly, the expansion of the railroads led to an expansion in farming because they opened up new land, which enabled more people to cultivate more acreage. Soon enough, the supply of farmed goods was greatly outstripping demand, greatly lowering retail prices and negating the initial benefits that the railroads had given the farmers by expanding their market (cheaper transportation reduced retail prices, meaning that consumers could purchase more goods for the same amount of money). Because prices went down so much, farmers needed to produce more to meet their costs, buy necessities, pay bills, etc. But the more they produced, the more prices dropped. This contributed substantially to the decline (from 1880 to 1900) in income per capita in seven of the eleven western states and territories; in the remaining four, it rose only barely. This, combined with the fact that the West had a higher cost of living than any other region in the country, spelled economic hardship for most individuals living there.

At the same time, the railroads provided Western settlers with benefits that should not be discounted. They made food, equipment, mail, and other goods from across the country available. On top of that, over a million people had left for the West before the age of transcontinentals, convinced that they’d never see or hear from their family again: now they would be able to do both. The telegraph lines that accompanied the railroads became, as Miss Carroll, predicted, the new “electric medium of exchange” across the country, and the rails themselves were a means to get home for even the poorest of workers in the worst of times.

The growth of the transcontinentals also led to a great increase in the number of railroad workers - more and more poor people were being drawn into this extremely dangerous job. For most of the nineteenth century, link-and-pin couplers snatched away the hands and limbs and lives of many switchmen. Likewise, brakemen worked on and fell from the tops of railcars or were killed by low-clearance tunnels/bridges.  And inadequate brakes led to many wrecks, as did weak rails and poor-quality ballast (railroad beds) and weak or poorly-maintained bridges and track sabotage and signaling mistakes and locomotive explosions and conductors exhausted from working extremely long hours - the list goes on. And when a worker was hurt, courts ruled in favor of the railroads in just about all liability suits, because the principle of implied contract stated, in the words of Professor Walter Licht, “that an employee engaging to serve a master accepted all conditions of such service, including all ordinary risks.” This doesn’t mean that help was totally unavailable. Railroads tended to spend at least some money on hurt workers’ medical expenses (on the condition that the worker waived the right to sue, of course), and some labor unions ran medical aid programs for their members. But given the poor quality of medical care in the nineteenth century and the severity of many railroad-related injuries, compensation wasn’t generally adequate.

And to boot, most railroad workers received poor wages and did not have secure employment. In 1889, the U.S. Commissioner of Labor surveyed the nation’s sixty largest railroads, and found that eight months was the duration of employment for the average engineman, seven for the average conductor and flagman, five for the average fireman and telegraph operator, and four for the average brakeman. This, in combination with poor wages, meant that the workers had hardly any financial security or stability. But at least they had jobs. Sometimes.

Others, by contrast, profited immensely. The government had loaned the railroads $64.5 million; by the time the railroads had settled their debt in the last years of the nineteenth century, the government received a total repayment of $167.7 billion. On top of this, the political ‘ethics’ of the day allowed for the Central Pacific’s copious ‘loans’ of money to a certain Senator Cole and of 50,000 acres of land to a Senator Stewart, while the Union Pacific gave $20,000 each to the Republican and Democratic national committees. Not to be outdone, the Southern Pacific pumped $1 million into the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and even granted free stock to a Mexican leader, Porfirio Diaz, as well as his officials and family members. And while these and more government officials and organizations lined their pockets, Thomas and Collis Huntington, Thomas Scott, Jay Gould, Henry Villard, and other financiers who controlled the railroads garnered even greater fortunes from their companies, which were by the 1890s falling left and right into receivership and failure.

These failures were caused in part by the financial means used to build the railroads. Miss Carroll boasted that “we have, at least, twenty thousand miles of railway constructed in the United States, involving...capital of more than five hundred millions of dollars,” implying that she expected greater capital growth from the new transcontinentals. But it turns out that the railroads neither sat upon nor were built by capital, but by credit, which came predominantly from the government. As a result, the railroads shared a bonded debt of $416 million in 1867, which had grown to $5 billion in 1890 - a gigantic sum at a time when a steak dinner cost about twenty-five cents. The shaky financing of the railroads in turn were direct causes of the Panics of 1873 and 1893, which hurt not only the railroads (121 railroads defaulted between 1873 and 1875, for example), but everyone else too.

Miss Carroll didn’t foresee these fiscal negatives, though, only the fiscal positives. Like many Americans of her time, she was enamored with the California Gold Rush, and sought to secure its economic role via the railroad.  “Consider how easy foreign cruisers and privateers could cut us off from this receipt of the essential element of our national vitality,” she wrote. “The gold now comes to us over foreign seas, through foreign territory, and over a circuit of six thousand miles. In the event of war, whole fleets would interpose to take from us this arm of our strength....The railway would then protect us, and save all our commerce and territory from foreign aggression.” Her reasoning was in fact perfectly sound, and the supply routes of California gold were never threatened by sea. But she failed to foresee that much of the gold carried to the East Coast by the railroads would not stop there. Part of this was the fault of the railroads themselves. They frequently broke their terms of agreement with European investors, who were thereby driven to demand their money back, so gold began flowing across the Atlantic to them.

What about foreign trade, though? Perhaps that would be the real economic contribution of the transcontinentals to America - Miss Carroll certainly thought so. “The Pacific Railroad should be made to shorten and cheapen the transit route for the commerce of Europe and Asia,” she said. Such a hope, embodied by the crates of Japanese teas in the hold of the first transcontinental freight train, materialized to some extent. Though cargo to and from Asia rarely exceeded ten percent of a transcontinental’s annual freight, the fact of the matter is that these railroads accelerated and cheapened trade with Asia, and they thereby increased its magnitude. 

But a similar prediction from Miss Carroll, that the railroad would make “our country the agent and carrier of the commerce of the world,” did not come to fruition. In part, this is because the U.S. government soured trade relations with Asian countries by shutting their people out of the country entirely with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1885 Foran Act, and the 1892 Geary Act. News of everyday discrimination against Asians, especially from the western U.S, didn’t help either. But even if America hadn’t irritated these potential trading partners, Miss Carroll’s belief that her country would become the center of the world’s commerce was based on her assumption that “the United States alone affords such a route” that would so effectively connect East Asia to Western Europe. She failed to foresee the completion of the Suez Canal in Egypt, which opened up Asian-European maritime trade and pushed the U.S. transcontinentals, the first of which reached completion in the same year, to the side. 

One more piece remained to Anna Ella Carroll’s vision, though. “With a railroad access to the entire continent, the blessing of our unequalled government and wise and wholesome laws will make us felt and propitiated by the entire world,” she claimed. “It is impossible to be too vigilant in promoting and spreading Protestant education over all that portion of our people. [The railroad] must spread the influence of American institutions over mankind, and dissipate that very darkness, under which men have been deluded, and their means squandered.” In short, like many others, she believed in Manifest Destiny by train.
Railroad Through To The Pacific is a famous lithograph from 
1870. Made by Currier & Ives, it visually represents Ms. Carroll's
 belief that locomotives would bring Western civilization to the 
theretofore 'dark' American West.

The transcontinentals certainly were increasing the population density of Nordic Western Protestants, but as the famous ‘Hell on Wheels’ towns revealed, they weren’t necessarily bringing righteousness along with them. These temporary settlements were filled with the hard-workers and heavy drinkers who were constantly moving west and laying track. Samuel Bowles, a journalist for The Republican, summed up these places well: “By day disgusting, by night dangerous; almost everybody dirty, many filthy, and with the marks of lowest vice; averaging a murder a day, gambling and drinking, hurdy gurdy dancing and the vilest of sexual commerce the chief business and pastime of the hours.” Even when permanent settlements established themselves, vice was not dissipated by ‘protestant education.’ Western prostitutes were so common that they earned their own brand name, ‘soiled doves.’ Violence was so endemic that newspapers ran regular columns like Cheyenne’s Last Night’s Shootings, and gambling was so common that gamblers formed their own gangs.

Of course, the inhabitants of the Hell on Wheels towns aren’t a representative sample of the new population of western U.S. settlers, and it would hardly be accurate to call them a bunch of murderous vice-lovers. In any case, Miss Carroll was more likely focused on the spread of Western Civilization and its replacement of the Native American way of life. And the railroads certainly facilitated this. “We built iron roads,” said General Sherman to a Native American leader. “You cannot stop the locomotive any more than you can stop the sun or moon, and you must submit.” This was the ugly truth, and it spread to wherever the railroads brought settlers and capital. Native Americans were evicted from their lands by treaties forced upon them or by the U.S. breaking the treaties it had made; often they were forced out by soldiers, like those of General Sherman.

The transcontinentals also impacted the environment. A number of the industries that they brought west, like mining, had negative but localized ramifications, but one of the most important widespread ecological changes wrought by the railroads was the virtual extermination of buffalo. Once upon a time, they roamed by the millions across the Great Plains. Their population had already begun to decline slightly and slowly because of diseases from and competition with horses, but it was because of the peoples brought west by the transcontinentals they nearly perished. Passenger trains marketed themselves by offering drive-by buffalo shooting as an attraction, and brought hordes of commercial buffalo hunters to make livings for themselves on the plains. As a result, according to the 1899 predictions of zoologist William Hornaday, only about a thousand of the millions of buffalo remained alive; modern estimates peg the number between one and two thousand. In the words of historian Richard White, “if the railroads...brought civilization, then the first sign of civilization on the southern plains was its stench, as tens of thousands of rotting [buffalo] corpses proved too much for even the wolves to consume.” After all, the buffalo hunters wanted the hides much more than the meat, which was therefore regularly left on the dead animals’ skeletons. The 54,000 or more Native Americans who relied on the animals for food and clothing would have perished as well if the U.S. federal government didn’t step in to supply them with blankets and beef. 

While there is no doubt that railroad travel across the country was faster, better, and cheaper than travel before, with plenty of wide-reaching positive repercussions, the hopes and expectations of Miss Carroll’s transcontinental vision only partially materialized, and she failed to foresee the less palatable elements of the future. The lesson of her vision, then, is that most visions have their merits, but are indeed mere visions. This lesson is very common in history, but is often forgotten, lost in a mixture of enthusiasm, expectations, bias, and confidence. Many arguments about decisions for the future or the meaning of the past, this argument not excepted, have validity, but all the same are mere arguments. There is no way that any argument about the past can fully encompass a single subject matter, nor can a prediction about the future, such as Miss Carroll’s, ever grasp all the unforeseen developments that time brings, or escape the law of unintended consequences. A vision, an argument, a perspective, or an idea, no matter how convincing, will almost always get some things right and some other things wrong while leaving plenty of other things out, no matter how right, wrong, or all-encompassing it seems.

Particular thanks to Richard White for writing Railroaded: Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. His book was my most substantial source. My other sources were:

1: http://tinyurl.com/Anna-Carroll-Pacific-Railroad

2: http://tinyurl.com/Railroad-Vs-Suez

3: http://tinyurl.com/PBS-Transcontinental      

4: http://tinyurl.com/Eyewitness-History-Transcont

5: http://tinyurl.com/Transcontinental-Textbook-1 

6: http://tinyurl.com/Transcontinental-Textbook-2

7: http://tinyurl.com/Transcontinental-Schmoop 
8: http://tinyurl.com/Nothing-Like-It-In-The-World

9: http://tinyurl.com/Ladies-Of-Tenderloin

10: http://tinyurl.com/Golden-Spike-Class-Work

11: http://tinyurl.com/Great-Plains-Railroad

12: http://tinyurl.com/RRs-Transform-Nation

13: http://tinyurl.com/Hornaday-Buffalo-Killing

14: http://tinyurl.com/Buffalo-American-PBS

15: Norton, Mary Beth. A People & A Nation.

16: Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It amazes me how everyone has to say somethin about the railroad, I showed a photo once to a person and the comment was Oh thats nice that paid all those people to come to your great grandfathers anniversary of being on the railroad...haha wake up dude. This was the largest gathering of people that paid for their own trip to Painesville, to the hotel stay, and met at the switch tracks on Fairport and Painesville to honor my grandfather. It was the larhgest gathering ever recorded in the Penn/Western and B&O railroad railroad. He had been written up on all his honors all his things he accomlished though out his time and his son following through his steps. Fayette was the most generousman in the Painesville are. He would give them money never tracking it so they could kep homes, I have more photo, more w2 forms-passes, and magazines then any of the museums I've been to. Sue if the wantthem they may cakk==ll for a copy. It was the same way with Guy Lumbardo. canad had no idea on his past after the 18yrs of age I do, I had photos of him kissing grandma!