Extravagant Pulse of the Continent!
From The New York Times:
“Type of the modern! emblem of motion and power! pulse of the continent!” Walt Whitman sang in praise of the railroad. When he published those lines in 1876, the vast network that connected West to East was being widely hailed as the muscular marvel of the industrial age. It sped the bounty of farms and factories across the land, spawned hundreds of towns and cities along its routes, pioneered in marketing and managerial organization, and employed a huge and growing labor force. The men who created and ran the transcontinentals — Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Jay Gould, Mark Hopkins, Charles Francis Adams Jr., among others — were as famous in their era as such high-tech moguls as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are today. Their entrepreneurial daring did much to transform the United States into a prosperous, developed nation.
Richard White will have none of it. “Transcontinental railroads,” he asserts in “Railroaded,” “were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long.” This is a bold indictment, but White supports it convincingly with lavish detail and prose that swivels easily from denunciation to irony.
To gain an edge on their corporate rivals, railroad owners built expensive lines into drought-prone areas that had few settlers and little prospect of attracting more. To finance their risky endeavors, they routinely bribed politicians and borrowed money they could not pay back — while publishing mendacious financial reports. To insure friendly coverage, railroad executives bankrolled local newspapers and arranged to kill or delay the publication of stories that might damage their interests. At the helm of a dangerous industry where workplace accidents were common, they resisted installing air brakes and other devices that would have sharply reduced the toll of maimings and deaths. “The Northern Pacific,” White says, “banned unnecessary whistle blowing on the Sabbath and profane language any day, but it slaughtered workers day in and day out.”
The history of American capitalism is stuffed with tales of industries that overbuilt and overpromised and left bankruptcies and distressed ecosystems in their wake: gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear power, to name a few. The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age. But their behavior revealed a trait they shared with many of their fellow citizens: too much was never enough.