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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America [Paperback]

Richard White
3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 23, 2012 9780393342376 978-0393342376 1

"A powerful book, crowded with telling details and shrewd observations."  —Michael Kazin, New York Times Book Review

This original, deeply researched history shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success. 8 pages of illustrations

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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America + Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
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Editorial Reviews


“A model of narrative skill and [an] insightful reinterpretation of the Gilded Age. It is easily the best business history I have read.” (Donald Worster - Slate)

“Will entertain and outrage readers.” (Buzzy Jackson - Boston Globe)

“An exciting story and well told.” (John Steele Gordon - Wall Street Journal)

“Imaginative, iconoclastic, immensely informative and mordantly funny.” (Glenn C. Altschuler - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

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.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 720 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (April 23, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393342376
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393342376
  • ASIN: 0393342379
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #200,035 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
105 of 112 people found the following review helpful
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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80 of 93 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Enough with myths, lets have some truth July 11, 2011
By Festus
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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57 of 73 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars For the bad reviews... July 17, 2011
By Chris
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Raging Railroads
White does an excellent job of capturing the transcontinental railroads and their impact on the modern American history. One of the better books on railroads that I've read. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Carl H. Hanson
5.0 out of 5 stars Very thorough, fascinating account of a pivotal facet of American...
Very interesting account of the growth of the railroads across the American West. Shows what was going on behind the scenes, demonstrating that history is very messy as its... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Keith R. Snyder
3.0 out of 5 stars Writing not content
This was for me a hard book to finish. Not the content which for the most part I didn't have much issue but the writing was very, well boring. Read more
Published 2 months ago by groundhog
3.0 out of 5 stars peculiar
i dunno about this..it was difficult to read and didn't really tell the story. author worked hard to make and exciting story dull or forgettable.. Read more
Published 6 months ago by J. craig
4.0 out of 5 stars Richard White revised New Western Theory
White is not going to give you the traditionalist cheering of the railroads crossing America. White is a New Western Theory historian and has listed out the detrimental aspects of... Read more
Published 11 months ago by Trezrun Lawrence
3.0 out of 5 stars Railroaded
Of all the railroad histories I've read, this one took me the longest to read. This does not mean it is a bad book, but it's just not that good of a book. Read more
Published 12 months ago by J. Lindner
3.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction to America's complicated railroad history
Railroaded is the story of the Transcontinentals, the men and women who connected America's two coasts. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Andrew Keyser
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful book
Absolutely great book!! I had to email the author I ws so impressed. Every railfan needs this in their library.
Published 16 months ago by Jerry Johnson
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent!
This book pulls all the pieces together- we really enjoyed reading it! It is interesting to read American History from a variety of viewpoints and then see how the ideas all work... Read more
Published 16 months ago by N. Shirley
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific book, terrific writing and research
I also am mystified as to the negative reviews. The writing is excellent, the research is very impressive. Read more
Published 17 months ago by Boris the bird
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