The world’s first transcontinental railroads were built in America after the Civil War. Considered one of the greatest technological feats of the 19th century, the transcontinentals transformed American life. But historian Richard White says this happened as much by their failure as success. He draws on twelve years of research to cut through myths about the opening of the west and the evolution of corporations. We talk about the economic, social, political and environmental consequences, and he draws parallels with the economic crises we face today.


  • Richard White MacArthur award-winning professor of American history at Stanford University.

Author Extra: Richard White Answers Questions

Mr. White stayed after the show to answer a few more questions.####

Q: I am wondering what Prof. White thinks are the most important 3 or 4 key facts or understandings that high school students should learn about the railroads in order to be informed citizens.
– From Mary via email in Salt Lake City

A: Since I am not sure if you mean the contemporary railroad system or the historical one, I will address both. Historically, the students should look at railroads as a transformative technology similar to the internet today. But they should realize that it is not the technology itself that changes society but rather who controls it, how it is used, and how it is regulated. Secondly, they should know that it was the organization of the railroads as massive corporations that was the most controversial thing about them during the nineteenth century and looking at this gives great insight into political change in the United States. Third, railroads in the United States, then and now, were freight railroads. Their major use was carrying things, not people. Fourth, what matters about any technology, particularly railroads, is where, when, and how it is used.

Q: Can you speak to the Beef Trust’s monopoly on insulated icebox cars and its effect on rail commerce?
– From Ryan via Twitter

A: I can, but I am only echoing William Cronon’s wonderful book “Nature’s Metropolis.” As he explains, refrigerated cars gave the Chicago slaughterhouses a great advantage over local butchers who slaughtered animals imported by rail. First, centralized slaughterhouses could undersell local butchers because the slaughterhouses relied largely on meat by-products for their ultimate profit. They could sell the meat at cost or even under cost. Local butchers could not compete because they did not operate on a large enough scale to capture the by-products. The railroads initially tried to keep the live cattle trade alive because it gave them more traffic than the chilled beef trade, but they failed. There initially was consumer resistance to chilled beef, but the meat packers overcame this through low prices and aggressive advertising. Cronon tells this story very well.

Q: In reviewing the financial disasters of his study, how would your guest compare the long-term national economic impact of the railroad barons, in their successive bankruptcies, on the government and the people, left holding the bag, to the long-term national impact of their peers today ? – From Charles via Email

A: Well, we don’t know the long-term impact of today’s financial crisis, but the transcontinentals contributed to two depressions and a very sharp recession over roughly thirty years. They fueled political corruption and contributed to environmental and social damage. I would argue that the railroads were brought largely under control in the early twentieth century by the Progressives, although the roots of the reforms lay in the nineteenth century. I hope that the present crisis does not repeat itself, and I hope it will not play out over the next thirty years.

Q: I’m listening to the author of Railroaded and interested to know about the other public technologies supported.I suspect before railroads there were canals, and then electricification, roads, and air travel with also maybe public education. Are there others and did the railroads teach later lessons as we invested in other technologies? – From J.E. via Email

A: This is a very good and very complicated question. Most of the early canals were subsidized by the public and many of them were owned by the states. There were state subsidies for railroads before the Civil War, but this led to financial disaster in many states, which then outlawed further public subsidies. The federal government and western states continued to give subsidies. Large dams have largely been a federal enterprise, and most airports and roads are built and funded by the public. The key questions to ask about subsidies are first, if the public builds infrastructure does the public control the projects and get revenue from them, or does the public build projects and allow the profits to go to private corporations as was the case with the western railroads? Second, when the public subsidizes these projects, do legislators identify a revenue stream – such as gas taxes – that will pay for them or are the subsidies drawn from the general revenue stream?

Read an Excerpt

Reprinted from RAILROADED: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White. Copyright (c) 2011 by Richard White. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc:


  • 10:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In a new book titled, "Railroaded," historian Richard White says, "The transcontinentals of the 19th century transformed American life, but not because of their success." He joins me in the studio to talk about why he thinks their failures laid the groundwork for many of the problems we face today. Richard White is a professor of American history at Stanford University. Throughout the hour, we'll invite your calls, questions, comments, 800-433-8850.

  • 10:07:46

    MS. DIANE REHMSend us your email to Join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir.

  • 10:07:57

    MR. RICHARD WHITEGood morning, Diane. It's my pleasure to be here.

  • 10:07:58

    REHMThanks for being here. Thank you. How much do you compare the railroad of the 19th century to what's happening now, in terms of the Internet, the growth of communications?

  • 10:08:19

    WHITEWell, when I started writing the book, I didn't compare it much at all, but the book, as you said, took 12 years. And over that time, I watched the growth of the Internet. I wrote this in Seattle. I wrote it in Palo Alto. I watched the rise of the dotcoms. I watched Enron. I watched the financial crisis. And after a while, the late 19th century seemed to be very close in many ways to the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

  • 10:08:46

    REHMYou see that comparison because of the push, the boom and then the failures.

  • 10:08:56

    WHITEWell, I see it for those reasons, and I also see it because it's the first time that the United States -- in the United States that corporations really begin to take a large role in politics. This is really the birth of the modern corporation, with the transcontinental railroads and other railroad corporations, and they invent -- I argue in the book -- the modern lobby. And what they make is politics becomes a way of doing business.

  • 10:09:23

    WHITEThe business is not just a competition between corporations and the market, but the market itself is entwined with politics. And, in fact, these corporations compete for political favors. They get lobbies. They get all kinds of politicians involved.

  • 10:09:37

    REHMIt's interesting because you say that the railway tycoons were actually muddling through. What does that mean?

  • 10:09:47

    WHITERailroad tycoons who take over the transcontinental railroads were not experienced railroad men. As a matter of fact, they got it because no experienced railroad man would touch the transcontinentals. It made no sense to build railroads over thousands of miles where there was not enough people living to produce things for market, where it was going to cost them a huge amount of money.

  • 10:10:10

    WHITEAnd so railroad men would not touch it. People who would touch it are people who knew that you could make some money from constructing the roads, financing the roads and from land speculation along the road. So the people who built the roads did not know how to run railroads, nor were they particularly interested in running railroads.

  • 10:10:26

    REHMAnd, of course, even the term transcontinental is questionable.

  • 10:10:31

    WHITEYeah, these are railroads that, by and large, stop at the Missouri River. They're railroads that will build across places where you should build railroads, Kansas, Nebraska and places where it's pretty dubious to build railroads, Wyoming, Utah, on into California. And what people warned would happen did happen. The railroads go bankrupt. They go bankrupt not once. They go bankrupt repeatedly, and they have to be rescued by the federal government over and over and over again.

  • 10:10:59

    REHMI want to go back earlier to the actual construction of the railroads and the laying of those lines, which really called on many thousands of Chinese immigrants.

  • 10:11:16

    WHITEYeah, and especially building from the West 'cause all of these railroads build in two directions. They build from the East to the West and the West to the East. There is not a labor force available on the West Coast that will work at wages which would make it practical to build these railroads. The solution to the problem becomes the Chinese. Many of the Chinese were already in the West because of the gold rush. They're recruited.

  • 10:11:39

    WHITEOther Chinese come in, and the Central Pacific, the Canadian Pacific, the Northern Pacific, none of these roads would've been built without Chinese labor. They enabled the building of the roads. And it's low-paying, brutal, dangerous work.

  • 10:11:54

    REHMHow many actually survived. Do we know?

  • 10:11:58

    WHITEWell, most will survive. What you have on the railroads is the railroads, in general -- it's not just the Chinese -- anybody working in the railroads, this is a dangerous profession.

  • 10:12:07


  • 10:12:08

    WHITEBecause what you're working with is a technology which they could've improved, but they didn't. The things, when you actually run a train, that kill people are going to be very simple things, like brakes. Most of the brakes on a railroad train, especially a freight train in the late 19th century, are hand brakes, which means people have to be on top of the cars turning a wheel to manually stop the route.

  • 10:12:27

    WHITEPutting the cars together are manual couplers, which means human beings have to put their hands in between, very often, moving railroad cars to hook them together. For construction with the Chinese, you're building through mountains. And because there becomes a kind of race in order to get subsidies, you're building in the middle of a Sierra winter. It's cold. You're building beneath deep snow. You're using nitroglycerin and dynamite with very little safety precautions. And the critical criteria is speed, and that speed causes injuries.

  • 10:13:01

    REHMWhat happened? Did the Chinese men leave families behind, or did they travel with them?

  • 10:13:11

    WHITEThe Chinese, in this way, are much like any other worker who works in the West. These are workers who leave their families behind and who intend to go back themselves. Many of them will. Many others won't. I mean, one of the things that happens in American immigration generally is immigrants, I would say, virtually always intend to return, but things happen. You stay in the West. You get hurt in the West. You never quite make enough money to go back.

  • 10:13:38

    WHITEBut very many Chinese do go back. And, actually, the first Chinese railroad -- if I'm not mistaken -- is urged forward and is going to be partially built by Chinese who had had experience building American railroads.

  • 10:13:49

    REHMHow fascinating. How did the construction of the railroads sort of change our sense of time and space even?

  • 10:14:02

    WHITEWell, what railroads will do is bring the world, in one sense, much closer together. The great cliché of the 19th century is that they've eradicated time and space. Places that had taken months to get to, you could now get to in a week. And it alters. I give the story of one man who's a freight agent, H.K. Thomas, in the Union Pacific. He's so close to New England where he comes from, that he never really, in a sense, leaves New England.

  • 10:14:33

    WHITEHe reads New England papers. He has a fiancée who will break his heart in New England, but they correspond by mail. He will go back to visit New England. Then when he forgets his toothbrush in New England, his toothbrush can be sent to him over the rail and be there in a few days. And this was unimaginable just a little time earlier. There'll be people who will talk about places that it took army officers three months to get to, they now get to in 48 hours.

  • 10:14:59

    WHITESo the railroad, in that sense, utterly transforms time and space, but that's when the railroad works efficiently. Much of the time, railroads do not work that efficiently.

  • 10:15:08

    REHMNow, what were the railroads like before the Civil War, and even during it?

  • 10:15:15

    WHITEWell, before I did the Civil War, what you have -- if you look at a railroad map, it's utterly deceptive. You can open up a history book, and it shows these rail lines spreading over the North and the South. But the thing to imagine is, let's say some of those railroads -- there's HTO model railroads, and some are Lionel model railroads. The railroads don't connect. You literally have to offload from one railroad, load it on another.

  • 10:15:37

    WHITECities, like Philadelphia, will not allow the railroads to connect because they're freighting companies that make their money freighting goods from one railroad to another. These railroads are much faster than anything else, but they're wonderfully inefficient. They come in numerous different gauges, and, in many ways, many railroads will not allow their cars to go on a rival railroad's...

  • 10:15:58


  • 10:15:59

    WHITE...tracks, yeah.

  • 10:16:00

    REHMSo you've got competition even for the track themselves.

  • 10:16:05

    WHITEYeah. And one of the things that happens during the Civil War is that the North, obviously, to make a railroad system work to supply troops and to move troops, can't put up with this. The federal government will demand and, in many cases, enforce all kinds of changes that begin to turn it into a single gauge national system.

  • 10:16:23

    REHMRichard White, he's professor of American history at Stanford University, and his new book is titled, "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America." Do join us, 800-433-8850. You talk about the Pacific Railway Act of 1864, and you say it was the worst act money could buy.

  • 10:16:58

    WHITEWhat it is, is it's sloppily written. Many of the people who criticize the act know full well what's going to happen with it, but, in fact, what you can overwhelm them with -- it's two arguments, one of which is patriotism. We have to hold the country together. It's during the Civil War. And the second one is, yes, there's no traffic for this railroad. But, if we build it, they will come. The traffic will come after it.

  • 10:17:20

    WHITEBut to get this through, what you have is something that will become pretty much a feature of the Gilded Age. Railroad promoters offer Congressmen bonds, promises of stock, participation in insider construction companies, jobs after they're done. And it becomes, in many ways, the worst act that money can buy. Money does buy it. It still doesn't give enough incentives in 1862. So in 1864, they have to sweeten the pot.

  • 10:17:53

    WHITEThey don't pay any attention to -- there's requirements that the railroads will have to pay the government back, but they say nothing about the interest, whether it's going to be compounded, whether it's going to have to be paid back yearly, whether it's going to be paid back at the end. So there's a huge gift of basically a loan in which no interest has to be paid for 30 years by the railroads. And by the time the loans come due, the railroads will argue they shouldn't have to pay it, and the government will have to coerce the railroads at the end of the century to get any of the money back at all.

  • 10:18:21

    REHMAnd hence the creation of one of the largest lobby firms in the country. Short break here for Richard White, his new book titled, "Railroaded." I do welcome your calls, 800-433-8850.

  • 10:20:03

    REHMAnd welcome back. Richard White is with me. He's professor of American history at Stanford University. He's written about the construction and, indeed, the aftermath of the construction of the transcontinental American railroad. His new book is titled, "Railroaded." And here's an email from Jim who asks, "Did you write about the genocide of Native Americans proceeding and during the building of the railroad?"

  • 10:20:44

    WHITEI write a great deal about the relationship of Indian peoples -- and I use the word Indian peoples advisedly. That's -- I have a lot of experience working with Indians, and they call themselves Indians. But I would not characterize it as genocide. Genocide takes place in the United States, Northern California, Southern Oregon during the gold rush. What happens with the railroads is much more insidious. Essentially, the land grants that go to the railroads come out of Indian lands.

  • 10:21:13

    WHITEThe railroads will move in and end up abrogating the treaty system because it's so corrupted, the treaty system, that land was being conveyed directly to the railroads rather than to the United States to be open to settling.

  • 10:21:25

    REHMHow did they do that?

  • 10:21:27

    WHITEThey did it through money and political connections. Sometimes, in the Senate -- the best one is actually a character, Sen. Pomeroy, who Mark Twain turned into his main character in, "The Gilded Age." And he's a man, after that, who's always less famous than his own caricature. But what he did is he headed a railroad company. He then arranged for a treaty with the Kickapoos. He then made sure that none of the Kickapoo leadership would have a say in the treaty unless they were already amenable to it.

  • 10:21:58

    WHITEHe then wrote into the treaty that the money would -- the land would be conveyed at a minimal price directly to the railroads who would then sell it. And then he steered it through ratification through the United States Senate. I mean, one of the things people forget is -- we think about the Johnson administration and the Grant administration as being incredibly corrupt. The Lincoln administration was pretty corrupt, also. And Congress will, for a set of complicated reasons I discuss in the book, end the treaty system in the early 1870s.

  • 10:22:26

    WHITEAfter that, there's going to be agreements, but very often many of the peoples who are negotiating the agreements are on railroad payrolls. Many of the senators who steer these things through Congress are so-called friends of the railroads, also on railroad payrolls, so it's very much an inside job.

  • 10:22:45

    REHMBut, at the same time, you call -- you say there is kind of a sorcerer's apprentice quality to those railway tycoons.

  • 10:22:56

    WHITEIt is. It's very much like the Internet today. What's happened is people have created an incredible technology which really does transform the world. But that technology is not fully under their control, so all kinds of things they intend to happen don't happen. If they're clever enough, they can make money from their own mistakes, which many of my guys in the railroad end up doing. But, very often, they get in way over their heads, which is why they have to be bailed out so often. They don't understand the technology.

  • 10:23:31

    WHITEAnd many of the people running the corporations, which they're also creating, don't even really understand and make no claim of controlling the corporations.

  • 10:23:38

    REHMYeah, give me some examples of these so-called major mistakes that these guys made, and yet got away with it.

  • 10:23:48

    WHITEOkay. One of the things that they'll do is they build way ahead of demand, which is a common problem here. They solicit subsidies to build railroads where there is no traffic for the railroads. What they do is they build the railroads far ahead. They borrow the money to do it. Very often, they give away the stock or own the stock, so they borrow -- they sell bonds at a discount. They then take the money from the bonds. Some of it goes into the railroads. More of it goes into their pockets as dividends.

  • 10:24:17

    WHITEAnd then what will happen eventually with this kind of financial model is that railroads will go bankrupt. Well, when the railroads go bankrupt, the courts step in, make the very people who, in fact, have steered the railroads into bankruptcy, the receivers, the railroads are reorganized, usually in ways that create further sources of profits. And the whole game begins again, and this...

  • 10:24:37

    REHMAnd that's how you see the parallels to what's happening today.

  • 10:24:43

    WHITEVery much so. It's the people who create the crisis, do not suffer for the crisis. This is a kind of capitalism which is very kind to the rich. People suffer, but it's not the people who have really been in charge. They come back over and over again. Henry Villard, who drives the Union Pacific -- or excuse me, Northern Pacific into bankruptcy, really ruins the railroad, not once, but twice. He never fails. He's always back. He's back in another incarnation bringing, in his case, German money, and the railroad suffers. But Henry Villard does fine.

  • 10:25:19

    REHMWho do you see as a parallel today?

  • 10:25:23

    WHITEWell, I would say much of it would clearly be the people who organized the current mortgage investment crisis. They're very -- those banks, which steered us into an economic disaster we're still suffering from today. By and large, the people who made the most money from that have not really suffered. The people who took the mortgages suffered. People who lost their jobs suffered. Workers suffered. Universities suffer. All kinds of people suffer, but the people who really engineered the crisis seem to always come out all right.

  • 10:25:55

    REHMHere's an email from Brandon in Jacksonville, Fla. "Is there any comparison between the goals of the transcontinental railroad and the goals of many who advocate the building of high speed rail in our time?"

  • 10:26:14

    WHITEWell, I've actually come out publicly against high speed rail in California. I'm not against high speed rail in general, but I think the parallels are fairly striking. What you're advocating is large federal subsidies, in many cases a large federal debt to create systems, at least in California, which will be turned over to private investors who will only come in unless there's going to be a kind of guaranteed profit.

  • 10:26:44

    WHITEAs one critic in Congress, the 19th Century railroad, said, these are essentially propositions where the government takes all the risk, and if there be any profit, it goes to private investors. And this strikes me very much the case. Now, I'm not against public investment. I'm not even against public subsidies. But I think you should do it on the basis of need, and the public should always be ruthless in protecting its own interests.

  • 10:27:10

    WHITEVery often, in these kinds of systems, the public is left holding the bag. And you also have to make sure there's a need for it. In California, the problem is I do not think there will be people who will ride the trains. I think there's a great need for new railroad construction, but what we need is freight, not passenger. And that's going to be the real crutch.

  • 10:27:30

    REHMInteresting that you portray the man who founded the very university at which you teach, Leland Stanford, as one of the dimmer lights. Do you have any qualms about that?

  • 10:27:49

    WHITENo, I don't. You know, as my wife said, they should inscribe on my gravestone, he bit the hand that fed him. But, in many cases, I'm a historian. I have no loyalty to Leland Stanford or, in fact, to anybody else I write about. My goal is to present them in the context of their time as truthfully as possible.

  • 10:28:11


  • 10:28:11

    WHITELeland Stanford made a big mistake, or his wife did. She destroyed all of his records. And his records could be destroyed for a very good reason. They were certainly incriminating, and she wanted to protect his memory.

  • 10:28:23

    REHMIncriminating, how?

  • 10:28:24

    WHITEWell, what they would have is Leland Stanford bribed politicians, paid favors for political subsidies, very often did things which were not only technically illegal, but were illegal, bought his seat to the United States Senate. All of these things were very well known at the time. The problem with destroying your own records is it leaves your enemies' records intact. And Leland Stanford has plenty of incriminating letters. When the files of Collis P. Huntington, who was his partner, and Mark Hopkins -- and both of them hated him -- they made sure to keep everything Leland Stanford wrote.

  • 10:29:04

    REHMBut he did found this great university.

  • 10:29:08

    WHITEWell, he founded what became a great university. This could get me in trouble with Stanford. But Stanford University did not become a major university until after World War II. Before that, Stanford University was a respectable liberal arts college in California. And the reason he founded it is a very touching story. It's -- if you go to Stanford today, the university in its 19th century form, is a monument to a dead child. It is not Leland Stanford University. It's Leland Stanford Junior University, for his 14-year-old son who died of typhoid in Italy.

  • 10:29:42

    WHITEAnd all of this just echoes the grief of his parents. You can't walk around the campus from the memorial church to what's left of the arch to the tomb on campus -- I take my students on a tour of this -- without getting a real sense of the grief that led them to create this as a memorial to their son.

  • 10:30:00

    REHMDid they go to Italy with the profits he had made from the railroad?

  • 10:30:08

    WHITEYes. And one of the things I found out about a lot of 19th century tycoons, they do not work really hard. They also tend to get sick a lot. And when they're sick, they tend to go to Europe or someplace else to recover. So Stanford traveled a great deal, and he was on a European trip with his son and his wife when the son died of typhoid in Italy.

  • 10:30:31

    REHMTough, and he comes back and begins this liberal arts college.

  • 10:30:41

    WHITEHe begins this college, which is going to be devoted not so much to liberal arts -- which is what it becomes -- but it -- to make technology part of an American education. So what he's really interested is an education of practical education, and that becomes the focus for Stanford. But it's not really a research university until much later.

  • 10:31:02

    REHMAnd, of course, that practical theme is what's resounding again today in colleges, universities across the country.

  • 10:31:14

    WHITEAnd it has been at Stanford since World War II. I mean, Stanford is not really a liberal arts university. It's not really even a scientific university. See, it's a university devoted to engineering and technology with a strong scientific and humanities and social science component added to it.

  • 10:31:31

    REHMAll right. Let's open the phones, first to East Lansing, Mich. Good morning, Daria.

  • 10:31:41

    DARIAI would like to confirm what I was taught, that our personal injury law was shaped by the railroad expansion that, in order to facilitate the expansion, we went from a (unintelligible) strict liability to comparative negligence.

  • 10:31:58

    WHITEThat's right. It happens in the late 19th, early 20th century. In the 19th century, for the workers to recover any sort of damages, they would have to sue the railroad, which is a pretty thankless task. And so what happens here is, even though the railroads don't like the legal expenses that come with this, by and large, they win those suits. But there are so many suits because the work is so dangerous, that what you get is, in fact, what leads up to worker's compensation later on. But it comes out of the danger of working in the railroads.

  • 10:32:31

    WHITEWorking on the railroads and working in coal mines are the two most dangerous jobs in the 19th century, and they're often compared rightly to the dangers of going to war.

  • 10:32:41

    REHMDid anyone ever win a damage suit?

  • 10:32:45

    WHITEOh, you could win a damage suit, but the problem is on much of this is, you know, you've lost your fingers, you lost your hand, or if you've lost your life, they will force you -- it's much like the legal system today. You have a right to go to court, and you have a right to sue. But you have to have the money to be able to sustain a battle against a large corporation which sees it in its interest to fight every single damage suit, right or wrong.

  • 10:33:09

    REHMUnless you've got an attorney willing to hold off on being paid.

  • 10:33:16

    WHITEWhich is true, except what you will find in the 19th century -- it's very interesting -- the railroads, because there's so many suits against them and they have so many large legal bills, that they will pretty much take the best legal talent in every line across -- every town across the line and put them on retainer.

  • 10:33:33

    REHMRichard White, he's professor of history at Stanford University. His new book is titled, "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Raleigh, N.C. Good morning, Janet. You're on the air.

  • 10:33:59

    JANETGood morning, Diane. And thank you for another wonderful show.

  • 10:34:02

    REHMOh, good.

  • 10:34:04

    JANETI wanted to share a positive aspect of the connection between the Internet and the railroad. I was recently doing history with my 92-year-old mother in Omaha, and she shared the joy of some of her neighbors back in the -- I believe it was early '30s when an orphan train came through to Albion, Neb., which is in the middle of Nebraska. And I think it's ironic that that connectivity that allowed some of her neighbors to adopt children when they were unable to have children is similar to the connectivity that the Internet allows people now throughout the world.

  • 10:34:39


  • 10:34:40

    JANETAnd I agree that there were many negative things with the railroad. I had a great uncle who was killed in an accident in the railroad yard in Omaha, but I think it's -- there are those wonderful positives that come out of events like this.

  • 10:34:55

    WHITEWhat you have is -- what you're expressing is very much the 19th century attitude towards the railroads. They loved them, and they hated them. What they didn't dislike was the technology. They wanted railroad trains. They wanted connections. What they objected to was the control the corporations had over their lives, was the sense that, in fact, it wasn't going to be their abilities that determined whether they succeeded. But it was going to be the rates charged by railroad corporations, which could determine who's a success and who's a failure.

  • 10:35:24

    WHITESo they very much liked the technology. They very much want that, but at the same time, it's the same way today, for example, with computers. People who love computers and hate Microsoft, there's that same kind of connection. So Americans are never against the technology. And, as a matter of fact, it's a very democratic technology. Much of this, before the patent system really takes hold, is a product of railroad workers themselves, and they're incredibly proud of these machines and what they can do.

  • 10:35:54

    REHMThere is a term used today, networking, where people really try to establish all kinds of contacts in the hope of furthering their own career, making those connections. Back then, friendship was something at work.

  • 10:36:16

    WHITEYeah, it's a word -- when I go into the archives, in some ways, I'm kind of slow myself. I will see a word occur over and over and over again. It takes me a couple of years to really figure out what's going on. These people address themselves as friends. And, at first, I thought, when I saw it, well, they were friends. That's perfectly understandable. But, after a while, I began to realize these guys hated each other, but they still used the word friends.

  • 10:36:43


  • 10:36:44

    WHITEAnd what I began to realize is friend is a code. It's a code for a relationship. What friendship means is reciprocity, loyalty, this ability to do mutual favors. And, if I listen to the associates who run the Central Pacific Railroad, I mean, it sounds like a Quaker meeting. It's friend Stanford, friend Hopkins, friend Crocker. But there's also lawyers who are their friends, newspapermen who are their friends, and, above all, there are politicians who are their friends.

  • 10:37:13

    REHMAnd of course, we used to have a kind of civility in the Congress even when people would stand up and say, my friend this and my friend -- not much anymore. Richard White is professor of American History at Stanford University. His new book is titled, "Railroaded." We'll take a short break. We'll be right back.

  • 10:40:04

    REHMAnd we're back with historian Richard Wright (sic) -- sorry, Richard White on his new book, "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America." Here's an email from Francis who says, "Does your guest include the story about the writer, Ambrose Bierce, coming to lobby Congress, not to convert the railroad baron's debt to low-interest bonds and his nasty confrontation with Collis Huntington on the capitol steps?"

  • 10:40:44

    WHITEWell, I do include Ambrose Bierce. It's very hard not to include Ambrose Bierce. My story's a little different. Ambrose Bierce is sent there by the Hearst newspapers to report on Huntington's testimony to Congress, where Huntington is trying to get Congress to forgive the debt that's owed by the Central Pacific. And I -- Huntington, it's -- the late 19th century is, in many ways, the Golden Age of American vitriol. But there's nobody who is better at it than Ambrose Bierce. I don't know about the confrontation on the steps.

  • 10:41:15

    WHITEI do know that he wrote in The San Francisco Examiner. He said, Mr. Huntington is -- excuse me -- of our modern 40 thieves, Mr. Huntington is a surviving 36.

  • 10:41:27


  • 10:41:28

    WHITEWhich is the kind of talent Bierce had for invective, which is just poured into a single sentence, and he devastates Huntington. Huntington had been -- was very thick-skinned, but he'd never seen anything like the kinds of attacks the Hearst papers and Bierce did to him.

  • 10:41:44

    REHMSo what was the outcome?

  • 10:41:46

    WHITEThe outcome is that they won't forgive the debt, but the Central Pacific does not get off that badly. What they will do is renegotiate a debt, so it's a 100-year debt at a much lower interest rate. So it goes on, but then when Harriman takes over the road, he will pay it off relatively quickly when the associates sell out the road.

  • 10:42:04

    REHMAll right. Let's go now to Concord, N.H. Good morning, Jim.

  • 10:42:11

    JIMGood morning. I just wondered if, in the book, if he would touch on the myth of Promontory Point and the golden spike-beating place when the railroads actually went right by each other.

  • 10:42:25

    WHITEWell, I think what you're talking about is the railroads don't go by each other. They survey past each other east of the railroads, continues to run the surveys and to, in fact, build some roadbed past each other. Then they negotiate the Promontory Point place as where they're going to meet the rails. They don't lay tracks. What they do is do the surveys and build the roadbeds. But these -- like so many of the things, this is a negotiated meeting place, and they drive the golden spike, which is quite genuine. There are actually five or six golden spikes.

  • 10:42:58

    WHITEOne of them is in San Francisco. The problem with the golden spike is they had to guess the date they were going to meet. So if you actually look at the golden spike, it's the wrong date on the spike. The railroads don't meet on the date that's on the spike, but you had to produce the spike earlier.

  • 10:43:13

    REHMWow. To Rocky River, Ohio, and to Mae. Good morning to you.

  • 10:43:22

    MAEGood morning, Diane, thank you. My great-grandfather worked on the transcontinental railroad. I am very curious. I don't know too much about it. I have read books like, "Man From Beijing," but my father heard stories about the cowboys and Indians from my great-grandfather and wanted to come to this country. He eventually did come and taught himself English by memorizing Zane Grey books. But I would be interested to know about the men that worked on the railroad and what happened to them. And since I don't really have any information about it, does he address this in his book?

  • 10:44:11

    WHITEI talk a great deal about the people who rode in the railroads. I talk less about the actual construction of the railroads, though I talk some about that. There's -- railroads are the biggest employers in the United States in the late 19th century. We have corporations which are bigger in the number of people they employed in the United States government, so very many people work for the railroads in the 19th century. And a lot would depend on what your grandfather did. If your grandfather is a construction laborer, these are brutal jobs.

  • 10:44:40

    WHITEAs you move up the railroad hierarchy, they're still dangerous jobs, but they're very highly skilled jobs in which people have a great deal of pride in their work and a fairly strong union. So what you'll find is a brotherhood of railroad brakemen, a brotherhood of railroad engineers and so on down the line. So they are people who really have a pride in their work, and they resist the railroads a great deal.

  • 10:45:04

    WHITESome of the greatest strikes of the 19th century end up being railroad strikes. So you'd have to know which railroad he worked on, the kind of job, but records do survive. It's harder to find out about individual workmen than it is about individual entrepreneurs, but you can find out.

  • 10:45:19

    REHMHow strong were those unions created by the railroad workers?

  • 10:45:26

    WHITEIn the 1880s and 1890s, until they're broken, they are quite strong, and they're strong because of the nature of work. I mean, for 19th century American workers, they thought, in a democratic society, work should be democratic. And they also thought, since they are the ones who know how to do the job, they're the ones who should help set the rules for how a job is done.

  • 10:45:48

    WHITESo railroad workers will really control it not so much through strikes, which often will end up being disastrous for them, but through these daily confrontations of work rules, how many hours, all these kinds of details which drive the railroads crazy, but which really protect the ability of the workers themselves to control the conditions of their own work.

  • 10:46:08

    REHMAll right. To Falls Church, Va. Good morning, Anthony.

  • 10:46:14

    ANTHONYGood morning. Prof. White, your argument is an analog. The good news is the country got through that. What was bad about that period -- the bad news is we might, no pun intended, be on the same track. Your argument is similar to Benjamin Freedmen's in his book, "The Great Depression," which is a study of the protracted economic downturn of the 1880s and '90s where he argues that corruption and scapegoating and a rise of intolerance was characteristic of the society compared to the New Deal response of The Depression, 1930s.

  • 10:46:54

    ANTHONYSo my simple question is, in your story, do you find or see any relationship to the rise of the railroads and the protracted economic downturn that was also occurring in the 1880s and '90s?

  • 10:47:08

    WHITEOh, definitely. What this is called by historians and economists is a long depression. And one of the things that surprised me is, over much of the West, American standards of living are actually falling over this period. They're not rising.

  • 10:47:21


  • 10:47:22

    WHITEWell, what you have is you have this period of large immigration, deflation and an intensively competitive economy, and there are bouts of boom and bust, in which large numbers of people lose their jobs. But you also have, though, in the 1880s and '90s, which people tend to ignore, is a reform movement. This is one of the great reform eras of American history. Many of these reforms will only reach fruition after 1900, but I would argue that, in fact, you have to see this as a two-sided coin.

  • 10:47:53

    WHITEAll of these kinds of abuses, all these kinds of struggles, which appear to be lost in the 1880s and 1890s, really are going to lead, in many ways, to a progressivism of the early 20th century, which, I think, historians are starting to re-evaluate and to be kinder to the progressives in the sense that a regulated capitalism begins to deliver benefits that a less regulated capitalism did not deliver at the end of the 19th century. And that, of course, is going to be heresy to many people today, but I think it's historically true.

  • 10:48:21

    REHMYeah, of course. Anthony, does that answer it?

  • 10:48:25

    ANTHONYYes, it does. It is fascinating, and, again, the good news is the country got through that. With works like yours, I hope people do not see themselves doomed to repeat history in its most cruel forms.

  • 10:48:42

    WHITENo. I'm very optimistic about the United States. If there's one thing about us, is we are a very resilient people.

  • 10:48:49

    REHMI'm glad to hear you say that. Thanks for calling, Anthony. To Syracuse, N.Y. Good morning, Richard.

  • 10:48:59

    RICHARDYes, Dr. White, I wonder if you can address the issue of the competition between the canal system developed after the 1820s, primarily in the Northeast corridor of the United States -- I grew up within a block of the old Erie Canal -- and in terms of what products they competed for, for transportation and passenger service?

  • 10:49:25

    WHITEWell, the railroads will ultimately destroy the canal system, but they won't destroy river and lake and ocean transportation. The problem with the canals, of course, especially in the North, is they're useless for a large part of the year because they freeze over. So you can't really use them. In the summertime, of course, you can always goods cheaper by water than any other way. That was true in the 19th century. It's true today.

  • 10:49:48

    WHITERailroads really worry about -- and this part of my argument about the transcontinentals -- railroads actually have to subsidize steamship companies in the Pacific Coast to raise their rates so that the railroads can compete because you can get goods cheaper from San Francisco to New York and New Orleans and over much of the East by sending them down to Panama, putting them on another railroad, a short railroad, putting them back on a steamship, and they will get there cheaper and nearly as quickly as they will by transcontinentals.

  • 10:50:17

    WHITEIt's really only until in the 1890s that the transcontinentals become economically competitive with steamship companies.

  • 10:50:25

    REHMYou know what we haven't talked about yet is what these railroads did to the environment.

  • 10:50:34

    WHITEWell, railroads in the 19th century are unintentionally, in many ways, an absolute environmental disaster because this is a result largely of their weakness. What we tend to think of is that the railroads are simply responding to this push, this mass push coming out of Europe and the United States of people who want land and are forging West. Well, the railroads, if you're going to think about these things -- we usually use water metaphors, like a tidal wave, a tsunami, but I think a better metaphor would be a fire hose. And the fire hose is directed by the railroads.

  • 10:51:05

    WHITEThe railroads promote settlement. The railroads urge people to go there, and they will try to establish industries to create things that they can haul. And what I do in the book is look at three examples of what happens on the Great Plains. Without the railroads, the final extermination of the buffalo herds would not have happened when and where it did. They were in decline, but, essentially, this rapid overhunting -- you have to have railroads to be able to bring back untanned hides for the leather industry in the East and in England.

  • 10:51:32

    WHITESo, first, you have the near extermination of the bison, which nobody really mourns at the time because they're replaced by cattle. They then put in cattle. Cattle overgraze the Great Plains, and what happens there is they, too, glut the market. And, by the time a bad winter comes, they die in extraordinary numbers. So you have these animals, which are worth very little on the market now, dying in the West, and the cattle industry collapses. They're going to be followed by people who are urging a doctrine pushed by the railroads of rain follows the plow.

  • 10:52:01

    WHITEThey know the Great Plains is arid, but they say that, in fact, farming itself will change the climate. Farmers move out. You grow wheat. Wheat growing collapses in the 1880s and 1890s. So what happens is three different economic and environmental collapses take place in the West. And it's not just that. We can go out to mining, all kinds of other things. The railroad doesn't plan these things.

  • 10:52:23

    WHITENobody sits down in New York or Boston and says, what I want is an environmental disaster. But what they really do is allow these things to go forward, and, more than that because they think it's going to produce traffic, they urge them forward.

  • 10:52:35

    REHMSo, in effect, you're putting people where they shouldn't be.

  • 10:52:41

    WHITEOne of the things we forget about large parts of the interior West is that even as the United States grows in population, large parts of this country have been losing population since the 1920s. And if you begin to look in western Kansas, western Nebraska, you see a series of railroad towns which are largely abandoned now. You see a kind of farming, which is -- people have been moving out for years.

  • 10:53:01

    WHITEWhen you have this sort of emptying out of the interior, that interior was filled up largely because of the railroads. And it's something, which in terms of development, I call it dumb growth. It's growth that should never have happened, and which we've paid a cost for for nearly a century-and-a-half since the railroads moved in.

  • 10:53:20

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We talked earlier about the Indians and what happened to them in terms of really swindles going on. But what do you think the effect on them might have been without the development of the railway system?

  • 10:53:44

    WHITEIf the railroads had not been subsidized and urged forward, I think what you'd have had -- eventually, they would've built, and they probably would've been built when you needed them. They would've been built closer to 1900.

  • 10:53:52


  • 10:53:54

    WHITEThat would've meant that, for many Indian peoples, you got 30 or more years to adjust to the coming of American society and American government. That Indians are going to be conquered is a given. That's going to happen, but it's how they're conquered, when they're conquered and what they retained. My guess is, if any of you are familiar with Indian country today, Indian country would look a lot more like the Navajo Reservation with all its problems than the Lakota Reservation, which is in Pine Ridge, which has even greater problems.

  • 10:54:21

    WHITEIndians would've been able to adjust. They would've been able to move more easily into the economy. They would've had time to reorganize, but, instead, it's literally in a blink of an eye. They have to move from one kind of society to another, and they lose most of their land base. And the results are going to be a disaster. Indian peoples in the West are plunged to the bottom of every single demographic in American society.

  • 10:54:43

    REHMAnd here's a caller in Great Falls, Va. Good morning, David. Quick question, please.

  • 10:54:51

    DAVIDHi, Diane.

  • 10:54:52


  • 10:54:53

    DAVIDFor your speaker, some years ago, I heard a talk about the Canadian Pacific Railroad construction, and, one, they -- the speaker said that one of Canadian concerns was that the United States was building our railroad in order to be able to annex British Columbia. Is there any truth to that?

  • 10:55:16

    WHITEYes. In the 1860s and 1870s, Americans presumed that not only British Columbia, but Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, would naturally fall into the United States. And, in fact, in a very complicated story, Jake Cook, who funds the Northern Pacific, tries to work with the Métis, who are in rebellion against Canada and the Fenians, the Irish rebels who were raiding across the Canadian border, to stage a revolution to bring Canada into the United States.

  • 10:55:48

    WHITEHe realizes this is foolish because this is not very helpful for getting British capital to build the Northern Pacific, and he backs away from it. But, for a very long time, the assumption was, yes, western Canada will naturally become part of the United States.

  • 10:56:01

    REHMSo, in the end, having done all this research and seeing the debate that's going on now about high speed rail, you say you're not totally against it, you're not totally for it, depends on where. What about Florida?

  • 10:56:20

    WHITEFlorida, I would say, no. I think Florida was a bad idea. I mean, it's very rare that I agree with Republican governors. But, in this case, it would be one that I agree on. I don't think that that was really going to be a manageable project. I think in the Northeast, it makes a lot more sense for it...

  • 10:56:36

    REHMBecause of the research you've done?

  • 10:56:40

    WHITEBecause partially the research I've done and partially from looking at other high speed rail projects. What you need for high speed rail to work is you need a guaranteed passenger base. You need high-density population of people who ride trains. You can do these things in the Northeast. When you look at -- one of the odd things is China's often now held up as an example of how high speed rail should work. If you -- I invite you to go look at what's happening with Chinese rail. It's an absolute disaster. It looks like the transcontinental railroads.

  • 10:57:05

    REHMRichard White, the book is titled, "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America." Thanks for being here.

  • 10:57:17

    WHITEThank you, Diane.

  • 10:57:18

    REHMAnd thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 10:57:22

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture, Monique Nazareth and Sarah Ashworth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Most Recent Shows