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Bill Thayer

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American Railroad History


[image ALT: A circular arc of 40- to 50‑story steel and glass skyscrapers fronting on a small river, with somewhat smaller buildings in the background and to the viewer's left; and in the foreground, coming from the right of the photo, a train already halfway across the photo and about to move out of it to our left and toward us. It is a passenger train against the backdrop of downtown Chicago. The photograph serves as the icon for the American Railroad History section of my site.]

Chicago owes its importance today to its first great economic expansion driven by the railroads in the 19c, and in turn the success or failure of the United States' first large rail systems often depended on how they served Chicago. Here an AMTRAK passenger train pulls its way northward out of the "Loop", past the Chicago River on its way to Milwaukee, on a November afternoon in 2009.

One of the most important factors in the growth of the United States, especially in the 19c, was the railroad: not only in the nation's territorial expansion and the forging of an organic unity between the States, but also in the way we learned to develop capitalism — imperfect as it is, the best system yet found for productive use of human labor and resources. This will therefore be a growing section of my site; and the next books are slated soon.

[ 246 printed pages
presented in 14 webpages; 1 photo, 4 maps ]

John Moody's The Railroad Builders is a solid if somewhat journalistic little book, detailing the genesis and growth of the railroad systems of the United States up to 1919, the year of its first publication. The author was extraordinarily well qualified to give us a look into the finances and financial shenanigans of the railroad companies in their heroic age; it's a good read.

[ primary source: 109 printed pages
presented in 5 webpages; 22 photos, 5 engravings, 1 map ]

Epic of the Overland is a short first-hand account of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad; by Robert Lardin Fulton, who worked on it. He says in his foreword that he's just filling in the gaps left by other books — not altogether true, since he does give a general overview of the project's inception and financing and the people that struggled to make it happen — and that it would be a shame not to pass on to posterity what he remembers: that part is unarguable, the stories he tells us are by turns somber and gripping, hilarious, or just plain interesting. Rather than just gaps, it's fairer to say that the author gives us a window onto the human side of the massive engineering project.

[ 439 printed pages presented in 23 webpages;
47 photos, 7 maps, 25 other images ]

The Road of the Century by Alvin F. Harlow is the story of the New York Central Railroad: written for a popular audience, it carries the reader with a wealth of anecdote from some pretty tentative beginnings thru to 1947, when that rail system spanned eleven states and reached into Canada. The saga is well told and gives a good picture of the early westward expansion of the railroads and some of the technological advances that made it possible.

[ 365 printed pages
presented in 30 webpages with 22 photos ]

The Great Iron Trail by Robert West Howard details the genesis and building of the Transcontinental Railroad. The book is a popular history that has been criticized for accentuating the story of the saga rather than its technical and financial aspects; but it has the great merit of fitting it into the wider political, economic, social, and technological context of American history.

[10/6/10: 6 articles, 4 photos ]

Among the several dozen journal articles in the American History Notes section of my site, some focus more especially on the railroads; to make them easy to find on that page, they are identified by an ®.

In Connor, Boyd, and Hamilton's 3‑volume History of North Carolina three complete chapters are given over to railroads in the state (II.12, II.17, and III.18), and the financing, politics, and social aspects are dealt with in a number of other chapters, sometimes intensely: to make them easy to find on the orientation page, they are identified there by an ®.


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Site updated: 8 Feb 12