On Track: America and Europe

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COMMUNITY vs. individuality: It is a broad generalization to say so, but time and again, differences between Europeans and Americans come down to that. Europeans generally have more serene cityscapes and more charming cafes, better public transit and social-welfare services. The United States remains peculiarly enriched by legions of immigrants seeking the opportunities they felt they could find nowhere else. I am reminded of this while dipping into a book that came out a few years ago, ''All Aboard: The Railroad in American Life,'' by George H. Douglas of the University of Illinois.

Running through the book is an implicit contrast between how American and Europeans responded to the opportunities the railroads afforded. Europeans tended to use rails to meet specific needs, e.g., to get imported goods from the port of Liverpool inland to the manufacturing center of Manchester. But Americans, as Douglas tells it, were willing to gamble on running a railroad from ''Nowhere-in-Particular'' to ''Nowhere-at-All.'' Thus they settled the American West. ''If you build it, they will come,'' so to speak.

As late as 1830, Chicago, for instance, was a remote military outpost called Fort Dearborn, with no more than 40 people. Within two decades the place had its first railroad and within half a century Chicago had become one of the world's leading cities - largely on the basis of its role as a rail hub.

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And throughout the Midwest and the West, railroads recruited European immigrants to settle in hamlets all but literally planted along the tracks. Why build towns where there were no people? Or railroads where there was no cargo? ''Manifest destiny'' was the answer: It was plain as day to these builders and developers that these territories cried out to be conquered and tamed.

It was a rough life; however romantic Americans wax about pioneer forebears, they should remember this. There were tough customers along the line. Douglas observes of one of the most notorious frontier towns in Kansas, ''Dodge City collected so many bad characters so quickly that it needed a lockup even before the railroad was able to bring in the lumber to build one.''

This was individualism at its most rugged. Throughout the book, the author has particularly kind words for those who made efforts to civilize life along the tracks, such as Fred Harvey, an English-born restaurateur who ran eateries along the Santa Fe line starting in 1876. His achievements included the successful imposition of a ban on cowboy boots on the tablecloths.

If the railroads helped spread people around where there were none before, they also had a role in civilizing the communities they helped establish. Just getting people onto standardized ''railroad time'' was no small thing, for example.

And Douglas suggests that Northern rail superiority during the Civil War was a decisive advantage not only for the usually cited military reasons, but more broadly because the railroads had helped form the North into a society and an economy that was more cohesive than the South.

Later on, the grand ''cathedral'' railroad terminals - the original Penn Station and Grand Central Station in New York are the classic examples - brought people together not only across time and space but across class lines. ''Unlike the terminals of London, whose officials for years went through unbelievable contortions to keep a duchess or an archbishop from having to mingle with hoi polloi, at places like Grand Central, every imaginable American type was on display. A drifter or a pretty file clerk could come to watch them lay down the carpet for the departure of the Twentieth Century Limited; anyone could be there in the morning to watch Clark Gable or Madeleine Carroll get off the train and go through the gate - just like everybody else.''

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