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Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern Americaby Richard White
Synopses & Reviews
The transcontinental railroads of the late nineteenth century were the first corporate behemoths. Their attempts to generate profits from proliferating debt sparked devastating panics in the U.S. economy. Their dependence on public largess drew them into the corridors of power, initiating new forms of corruption. Their operations rearranged space and time, and remade the landscape of the West. As wheel and rail, car and coal, they opened new worlds of work and ways of life. Their discriminatory rates sparked broad opposition and a new antimonopoly politics. With characteristic originality, range, and authority, Richard White shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success.
"The transcontinental railroads 'created modernity as much by their failure as by their success,' writes MacArthur fellow and Parkman Prize — winning historian White in this important and deeply researched history. Often poorly built and with no real demand for their services the railroads never paid for themselves and left chaos in their wake — e.g., displaced Native Americans, environmental disaster through encouraging the farming of nonarable land. Experienced railway men weren't interested in investing in transcontinental routes, writes White (The Frontier in American Culture), so six Sacramento businessmen (who formed the Central Pacific) and a slapdash federally chartered corporation (the Union Pacific) took the bait of money and land offered by the federal government. Their first act was to bribe Congress to increase land grants and relax restrictions on raising money. Then the race was on. Readers will be amazed, amused, and disgusted by the antics of obscure and familiar names (Stanford, Huntington, Dodge), mostly ignorant of railroading and spectacularly dishonest. White delivers an opinionated, delightfully witty but astute account of sleazy Gilded Age politics, business, and journalism, as well as the complex (but uncomfortably familiar) financial maneuvers men used to enrich themselves. Maps, charts. (May)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Book News Annotation:
In this history of the transcontinental railroad corporations of North America (for the railroads of Mexico and Canada were part of the same network and controlled by the same people) from their genesis in the US Civil War to their complete financial collapse in the depression of the 1890s, White (American history, Stanford U.) has produced a critical counter-narrative that, instead of dwelling on the golden spike and the discourse of triumphant progress, judges the transcontinentals to be unnecessary failures that, with the exception of a handful of individual entrepreneurs enriched by their innovations in finance, pricing, and political lobbying, resulted in harm to just about everyone else, including the corporations themselves. They were, nevertheless, transformative failures, shaping modern North America through their blurring of the line between corporate competition and federal regulation, rendering the sense of space as radically unstable and subject to the whims of distant powers, and helping rehabilitate anti-corporate movements through their general dysfunction (itself a mark of their corporate modernity, in White's view). White is at pains to stress that he is not resurrecting the Robber Baron literature, suggesting that, in general, those who ran the transcontinentals were generally more ignorant and inept than brilliant and scheming. Annotation ©2011 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
A new, incisive history of the transcontinental railroads and how they transformed America in the decades after the Civil War.
About the Author
Richard White, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Parkman Prize, is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.
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