May 10th marked the 143rd anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad heading east from San Francisco and the Union Pacific heading west from Omaha, Nebraska met at Promontory Summit, Utah in 1869. A ceremony was held marking the joining of east and west by the driving of a golden spike into the last railroad tie.
Author Richard White has written a Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner (and a Pulitzer nominee) work about the transcontinental railroad – its social, economic and political impact on America – called “Railroaded: the transcontinentals and the making of modern America”. White looks past the “triumph of progress” to examine the negative impact of the railroads on everyone (except the few who managed to get rich in spite of their incompetence and illegal acts). – the displaced Native Americans and the destruction of their way of life, the relations between management and labor with the recruitment of Chinese workers, wholesale political graft and corruption, environmental degradation, and finally, financial collapse resulting in the Panic of 1893. White draws parallels between the railroad magnates of the 19th century and the Wall Street bankers of the present times running highly leveraged businesses which contributed to their eventual collapse and causing an ensuing depression.
While some of White’s conclusions may be controversial, White’s sardonic descriptions are entertaining. Of John C. Fremont, “Fremont, in railroads as in many things, was a man not to be trusted.” Or when describing a railroad, “For hubris, grandiosity, and repeated failure, few corporations could surpass the Northern Pacific”.
To read a blog written by Richard White about the 1901 Frank Norris classic, The Octopus, see the Library of America website.