Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads, by Dee Brown

As has been established time and again on this blog, I like trains, so it'll come as absolutely no surprise to anybody that I'm talking about them yet again. And don't worry! They'll come back! I've got at least two more books to read just about trains!

This book deals specifically with the history of the transcontinental railroads built during the later half of the nineteenth century. I actually read another book about this very topic called Railroaded which goes far more in depth about the railroads than Brown does in this book. This is definitely far more of a general overview of the transcontinental railroads as a historical subject so it's good if you're unfamiliar with material and doesn't get too bogged down in technical details. If you're looking for something a little more substantial or in-depth then Railroaded is definitely superior in that regard.

The transcontinental railroads of the United States are an interesting topic because there was no real financial reason for them to exist. Railroads in the eastern parts of the United States were often built to connect existing settlements and ease transportation issues that had been partly but not completely solved by a combination of river and canal transportation. The Pennsylvania Railroad, the largest railroad in the United States and so solid it did not collapse into bankruptcy during the Great Depression, is the ultimate example of the eastern railroad. The western railroads, however, were going into vast territories inhabited only by the numerous Indian nations who had no interest or more frequently were opposed to the introduction of railroads into their lands. Perhaps a line of communication between east and west would be strategically necessary, but there was little economic incentive for a railroad of continent-spanning size.

As a result, the railroads crossing the western United States were largely subsidized through the federal government in a variety of ways. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific got cash for every mile of usable track laid, as well as extensive land grants, and their bonds backed by the federal government. Other railroads such as the Santa Fe eschewed cash payments in exchange for significantly greater land grants, providing the railroads with extensive opportunities for profit entirely divorced from actually running a profitable railroad. The bountiful opportunities for corruption, graft, and financial manipulation brought dozens of robber barons to exploit and gut the transcontinental railroads, leaving the United States with five barely-functioning railroad networks crossing the west.

Brown does a pretty good job covering the major points of the story of the transcontinental railroads, which weren't exactly the heroic nation-building exercises they sometimes get portrayed as in popular history. That being said, I do have a couple of issues with Brown's book at least one of which is because of when it was written. This book actually dates from the 1970's, which were a dark, dark decade for railroads in the United States. Penn Central, the poorly-planned merger between the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, had gone bankrupt and the issues of numerous other railroads led to the government takeover of all passenger operations with Amtrak and reforms to railroad regulation. An industry that even fifty years prior was central to America had become an obsolete relic. Many historians of railroads at this time had bitter and angry things to say about the railroad companies, and Brown is no exception.

While this is fair for the time period, and Amtrak service hasn't improved greatly either, at least where I live, it definitely dates the book. And considering how many emotions are tied up to the collapse of the railroads in the 1970s, it's hard for me to really make an objective assessment of the period because of the number of emotions involved. It's truly a curious phenomenon and I wonder if there will be history on it at a later point.

The other thing that bothered me was the disparity in Brown's coverage of Indian experiences and black and Chinese experiences with the railroads. Brown goes into great detail about the experiences of the Indians, as their titles to land supposedly guaranteed by treaty are rapidly extinguished to make way for railroads and the associated land grants. And of course there is much to be said about how the railroad, by splitting the buffalo herds and making them even easier for white hunters to exterminate, hastened the demise of the traditional way of life for many plains Indians. And Brown has every right to be furious as she is about the treatment of Indians.

But by comparison her coverage of the Chinese and black experiences with the railroads go far less in-depth. What I most remembered was her briefly mentioning the usage of black convict labor and Pullman Porters. Now, there is a whole in-depth exploration of the peonage system created in the United States after the Civil War that made it incredibly easy for black men to be convicted for trivial offenses and then leased as convict labor to farms, mines, and railroads as basically slaves. If you're ever interested in learning more about peonage, I highly recommend the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name. Suffice to say that in the south, including Texas, black convict labor was often employed to build railroads. And even where free black men were employed, they faced lower wages, discrimination, and violence from white railroad workers. And of course Chinese railroad workers faced the same issues as their black counterparts. These are huge issues that just sort of get glossed over in this book and feels like a missed opportunity.

Brown also mentions Pullman Porters, one of the best jobs available to black men in the United States, but fairly low-paying compared to other railroad workers and working as a servant for the benefit of the passengers. Pullman Porters, and by extension many railroad porters, have been referred to as ''George'' regardless of their actual name. Brown mentions this as in honor of their employer, George Pullman, owner of the Pullman company. The problem is that this was hardly an honor for the porters. It has been conjectured, although I have not found any strong evidence for this so far, that the Pullman Porters were called George because that was the name of their employer or ''master''. Even the simple fact that white passengers couldn't be bothered to learn the names of their porters reflects the second class status Pullman Porters were relegated to as black men. I think it is grossly misinformed to call this behavior an honor.

Issues aside, this is pretty good for a general history. As I said, it doesn't go terribly in-depth but covers the major highlights of the history of transcontinental railroads in the late nineteenth century in the United States. If you're looking for basic information this is a good start, but there are other sources that go far more in-depth.

- Kalpar

No comments:

Post a Comment