Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Books You Should Read: The American Railroad Network, 1861-1890

Editor's Note:  David Wilkins loves to read.  As a result, he reads a lot of railroad-related history and technical books.  As  David goes through his book collection, he decided to write short articles on railroad books he thinks you should read. This is the first installment:

Today, America’s railroads are part of an integrated transportation network that spans not only North America, but also the entire globe.  Today it is commonplace for a container originating in China to be offloaded from a ship in California, travel by rail to St. Louis, and delivered the last mile by a truck. Coal mined in eastern Wyoming routinely travels by rail to power plants in the Midwest, often over several different railroads.  Those who promoted early railroads in the United States could not have even imagined the development of railroads into a cohesive transportation network.

George Rogers Taylor and Irene D. Neu chronicle these early years of American railway construction and evolution into a network with their classic book The American Railroad Network, 1861-1890.  This book, first published in 1956 is available once again, thanks to University of Illinois Press. Taylor and Neu demonstrate how new transportation technology often finds itself at odds with existing forms of transportation as well as political and business interests.   In particular, railroads often became engaged in political battles to prevent now-routine practices such as interchange of freight cars.  

Early American railroads were often conceived to compliment existing forms of transportation, or for one city to promote trade with the surrounding region.  They were not conceived as a broad network of connecting lines, facilitating national and international commerce.  As railroad construction progressed
throughout the 19th century, railroads often did not connect, even when they served the same city.  Railroad freight traveling through cities like Erie, Pennsylvania had to be unloaded, transported across town by wagon, and reloaded for the continuation of the trip.  Complicating the matter, railroads were often built to different track gauges.  Railroads were not conceived as a network, but simply a means to enhance already-existing transportation infrastructure.

Rogers and Neu also examine how the necessity of the Civil War was the harbinger needed to begin the process of developing the North into cohesive railroad network.  Standardization of track gauge did not happen until 1886 in the South.  The study ends in 1890 when America finally had a connected, integrated railroad network, able to achieve the promise of efficient transportation the technology offered.  The book is informative and well written, accompanied by maps and illustrations to enhance the text.  While some may consider this book and its scholarship to be dated, it is an essential read for anyone interested in American Railroad history.    

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