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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America Hardcover – May 31, 2011

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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America + Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad + Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 660 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition (May 31, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393061264
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393061260
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #571,046 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Starred Review. Excellent big-picture, popularly written history of the Howard Zinn mold, backed by a mountain of research and statistics.” (Kirkus Reviews)

“This is history as dark comedy, brilliant and unsettling, puncturing facile economics and bland history alike. With ingenious research and iconoclastic perspective, Richard White recasts our understanding of a major chapter in American history. Mark Twain would be bitterly amused to learn just how gilded the Gilded Age really was.” (Edward L. Ayers, President, University of Richmond)

“Combining a robust wit with a dedication to endless labor in archives, Richard White delivers a sharp-edged new understanding of industrialization in the Gilded Age. Railroaded offers flabbergasting views of the human talent for self-justification and contradiction, provides a valuable—if unsettling—comparison to the financial troubles of our times, and shows why the best historians are compared to detectives. To readers intimidated by the topic of railroad finance: master your fears and stay on board for a very wild ride.” (Patricia Limerick, Center of the American West, University of Colorado)

“This brilliant book will forever change our understanding of the great railroad projects of nineteenth century America. Stripping away easy assumptions of technological triumph and financial wizardry, Railroaded tells a richer and darker story of post-Civil War America. Smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through, this is a powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War.” (William Deverell, Director, Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West)

“Richard White is one of those rare historians with an unfailing ability to transform any topic he writes about, no matter how familiar that topic might seem. In Railroaded, he tells the story of the western transcontinentals as it has never been told before, with insights that speak as much to our own time as to the nineteenth-century era he explores with such wit and intelligence.” (William Cronon, author of Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West)

“There is not a historian in America with a steadier gaze than Richard White’s: with him, no assumption goes unchallenged, no wisdom is ever merely received. Railroaded is a wonderful book: fresh, provocative, witty, filled with foreshadowing of our world but always true to its time, and told with the narrative force of a locomotive roaring across the empty plains.” (Geoffrey C. Ward, author of A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt)

Railroaded is a leviathan, a provocative challenge to a major myth about the American West: that transcontinentals were a triumph of American entrepreneurship and ingenuity, and a godsend to those who invested in, worked on, rode, lived near, or encountered them. Far from it, Richard West argues in a strongly written narrative that barrels along the track as it draws on intimate vignettes of players great and small, these railroads often proved to be a disaster for all but the handful that dreamed them up and, abetted by cronyism and complacent governmental regulation, enriched themselves as they impoverished the rest. This tale of havoc is an unsettling allegory of today's financial collapse and essential reading for all unnerved by the thought that we seem doomed to repeat history whether we are aware of it or not.” (Shepard Krech III, author of The Ecological Indian and professor emeritus, Brown University)

“When it comes to the American West, there is no other writer like Richard White, a serious scholar with a highly original take on familiar subjects and wit and elegant prose besides. His subject, the making of the transcontinental railroads, is perhaps the pivotal story of the American West, but it’s not the one most of us know from movies and mythologies. It's about the birth of all those things that most trouble us nowadays, a genesis story in which the serpent in Eden is the railroad itself writhing across the continent. A story of corporate power, industrialization, and political corruption, White tells it as it needs to be told.” (Rebecca Solnit, author of River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West)

About the Author

Richard White, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Parkman Prize, is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.

Customer Reviews

White doesn't seem to understand this.
So if your looking for a sweeping history of the railroads and all its "grandeur" for "civilization," then I would recommend you look elsewhere.
Instead of a historical report, the overall impression this book makes is that of an angry editorial.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

111 of 119 people found the following review helpful By Robin Friedman HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover
On May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, the lines of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads were symbolically linked together to celebrate the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. An iconic photograph celebrates this event. Once viewed as a seminal moment in the making of the United States and the West, the events at Promontory Summit and their aftermath receive a great deal of critical attention in Richard White's provocative and polemical book, "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America" (2011). White, the winner of a MacArthur Award and the Parkman Prize is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University. He has written extensively on the American West.

Much in this book will be familiar to students of the post-Civil War Gilded Age of American history. White's history differs from most accounts in its virtually unilateral criticism of the building of transcontinental railroads in the West. White claims the transcontinentals were built far too early when they were not needed, were drastically overbuilt, corruptly financed, and incompetently managed. They destroyed the environment and the Indian tribes, contributed to depressions and economic dislocation, and promoted poor land use and poor settlement patterns in the West. White concludes (p. 517): "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 those questions the answer seems no. Quite literally, if the country had not built transcontinental railroads, it might not have needed them until much later, when it could have built them more cheaply, more efficiently, and with fewer social and political costs.
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84 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Festus on July 11, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Many of the histories of railroads in America fall into two categories: Detailed accounts for railroad nerds who love to map and plot the old roads and visit the old sites, or stories of glory and bravery that create heroic myths about a foggy, inaccessible past. This book is the long-awaited, much-needed comprehensive history of long distance railroads. It both recreates the immediacy and contingency of the construction of these roads--unlikely events! extraordinary consequences!--and slices through the hazy fog of myth with a thrilling interpretation. For White, the long distance railroads were economic and environmental disasters that could never have been created without massive federal subsidies and an extraordinary amount of financial chicanery. The men who built the transcontinentals are strongly reminiscent of the men who brought us Enron and the recent financial collapse. That is not to say, as some reviewers have claimed here, that White is an "anti-capitalist" who hates private enterprise.

To the contrary! White shows that railroads weren't free market enterprises at all: They were publicly-supported, intentional subsidies. Their ultimate success, and their incredible power to remake American life, is not due to brilliant and energetic entrepreneurs but rather to a national decision to tolerate inefficient management and thieving railroad barons in order to further the public interest.

This is useful history. This is powerful interpretation. And it is exhaustive, document-based research. I hope those reviewers who complained about the book will consider David M. Kennedy's advice: We must refuse to believe something merely because we wish it to be true. History is very hard on belief, but it can be a powerful tool for the living.

If you want to get a sense of the book before buying, White has twice been interviewed on the radio this month (check out his interview with Diane Rehm in June or his July 11 Morning Edition interview on NPR).
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66 of 83 people found the following review helpful By Chris on July 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Many who have reviewed this book seem to have missed the point entirely. Richard White states in the introduction that Railroaded "emphasizes finance capitalism-the use of financial markets-as the central engine of corporate growth and expansion in late nineteenth-century North America."

He recognizes that "Although the transcontinental railroads emerged in markets shaped by large public subsidies and particular legal privileges, neither subsidies nor privileges were new in and of themselves. American states had subsidized and granted special privileges to canals, banks, and railroads in the 1820's and 1830's. These proliferating and often financially disastrous subsidies had brought about a constitutional reaction in the 1840s that dramatically curtailed the ability of the states to subsidize development and lend their credit" leading to the unique viewpoint of his book, "[which]left the ground open for the federal government."

The direct correlation he makes between railroad owners of the 18th century and the financial engineers of the 21st is this: "Transcontinental railroad corporations transformed the government itself by making the government an arena in which the corporations themselves competed, and by making Congress, bureaucracy, and the courts a mechanism for corporate competition."

I for one appreciated White's viewpoint that as a historian you cannot take the privilege of hindsight but must explore every option that the contemporary figures faced, which necessarily takes some bias.
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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America
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