A Roll Through The Railroad's History

American Railroads

By John F. Stover

University of Chicago Press

306 pp, $43 cloth, $16.95 paper

Scholarly tomes on American industry are largely ignored by the reading public. After all, how many people want to know all that much about the rise of steel production; or the impact of aluminum in the 1950s? But there is one exception: the railroad. The dominant US manufacturing industry of the early 19th century continues to attract both serious students of commerce and scores of train buffs.

In "American Railroads," John Stover has written what is surely the definitive one-volume overview of this most nostalgic of all US industries. The book, now in its second edition, is part of the University of Chicago's splendid series on "American Civilization," under the direction of Daniel Boorstin. Boorstin has written a preface to this edition, as he did for the first one, published in the early 1960s.

Stover gives the complete story of US railroading, starting with the first carriers in the early 1800s, when train companies were struggling to compete with builders of the new toll roads, and canal and riverboat operators. His approach is topical rather than chronological, and the book may be too detailed for some readers. But Stover has covered his turf well.

He also includes a list of important dates, plus a comprehensive reading list.

At first, Stover writes, train companies were financed by local entrepreneurs. Cities and states became primary boosters. Town fathers in Boston, for example, promoted the idea of railroads to ensure that New England would not be left out of the growing freight traffic moving along the new Erie Canal linking the Great Lakes to eastern New York State.

Later, as costs for railroad companies rose, development capital flooded in from Europe. Mergers were commonplace. Entire railroad systems were created.

In 1869 - thanks in part to the work of thousands of Chinese laborers - the Central Pacific (742 miles) and the Union Pacific (1,038 miles) linked up to create the first US transcontinental line. (And put scores of Pony Express riders out of work!)

The railroads were instrumental in helping to create US cities. And the North won the Civil War because it not only had right on its side in the struggle against slavery - but it also had the most trackage, enabling President Lincoln to move his Yankee soldiers south.

Railroads were crucial to US efforts in both World War I, when Washington took over rail lines, and World War II, when it did not. Railroads were at the core of major populist struggles of the late 19th century with farmers endeavoring to get produce to market and make a living. The Interstate Commerce Commission was created to help resolve pricing battles between railroaders and farmers.

Railroads now occupy a smaller position in the American industrial world. Most passenger lines are gone, replaced by commuter runs carrying workers from suburbs to city, or Amtrak, a quasi-governmental institution that repeatedly struggles for funding, customers, and safety. Today's rail carriers are largely freight transporters.

But few Americans - or travelers in any culture - would quibble with using the word "poetic" to describe railroads. How many people remain unmoved by their first train ride? A ride that may have included massive locomotives, the shrill sound of whistles ricocheting through air, flashing safety lights at highway intersections, the click-clack of metal on metal.

For many, the great names linger in memory: the New York Central, the Pennsylvania, the Baltimore & Ohio, the Rock Island, the Chicago & North Western, the Northern Pacific, the Union Pacific, the Illinois Central, the Chesapeake & Ohio, the Burlington, the Delaware, and Lackawanna & Western. An industry that can produce names like that - and inspire songs like the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" - deserves such a fine tribute as Stover's.

* Guy Halverson is a Monitor business writer in New York.

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