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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America Hardcover – May 31, 2011
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“Starred Review. Excellent big-picture, popularly written history of the Howard Zinn mold, backed by a mountain of research and statistics.”
- Kirkus Reviews
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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.
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There was much more involvement by the government than I had realized in the promotion of the railroads. If it had not been for the government financing the railroads growth would have been at a much slower pace.
There was an incredible amount of greed and corruption involved.
This was a well-researched and well-written book about that historical period of westward expansion.
Though it deals with the early transcontinental railroads it’s a long way from your dad’s heroic account of what was, indisputably, a notable engineering accomplishment. The blizzards, the dynamiting, the tunnel borings and the accidents are left to the many other books and films that cover them so thoroughly.
The author traces the business and political aspects. This includes a very detailed account of the financing of the projects with their bonds and mortgages and the federal subsidies that came in various forms and that sometimes makes for heavy going.
It is no revelation that the men who built these early transcontinental railways were crooks but what is new and interesting is the author’s view of just how incredibly incompetent they were. They knew next to nothing about how to construct or operate railways and in many cases neither did the operating people they hired. Until I read this book I had understood that their modus operandi was to construct the railroads using dishonest financing methods, build them up until they were profitable and then realize on the value of their stock interests. They had a better system that did not depend upon the success of the venture. They would form construction companies that they, not the railroad’s other investors, owned and then contract with their own company at twice the going rate for the work to be done. The old dummy corporations/sweetheart contract scam for which people are still being indicted.
On a more global level, the author believes that the many transcontinental railroads should not have been built until the increasing population and business in the areas served presented a demand. Some of them should not have been built at all. He stresses that the social detriments are too often ignored in evaluating the contribution of these businesses to the country. He notes that the choice was not between the transcontinental railroads as actually built and no railroads at all and that a more rational approach would have yielded better results.
Still, it would seem that whatever the folly of the follow-on transcontinentals the original one had to be built. The country was just emerging from cataclysmic war between two sections with different economic systems and philosophies but which, were, at least, contiguous. Now the country had two sections, a potentially thriving West Coast separated from the rest of the country by 2,000 of what, for all practical purposes, could have been trackless wast. There was no reasonably rapid and safe way to get freight or passengers from the East Coast or from the Mississippi to California. Each of the existing routes involved long delay and deadly peril from the weather, hostile Indians, shipwreck or yellow fever. It was faster and safer to get to England from New York than to travel across the country and probably easier to get from San Francisco to China. This could not have been a politically acceptable situation for a growing country. The first transcontinental railroad was probably necessary as a symbol of a united country
There was not sufficient traffic to make it a viable business opportunity and governmental subsidy was necessary. It would seem just possible that the project required the kind of reckless chicanery and lies and broken promises that brought it to fruition.