The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America
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America was made by the railroads. The opening of the Baltimore & Ohio line––the first American railroad––in the 1830s sparked a national revolution in the way that people lived thanks to the speed and convenience of train travel. Promoted by visionaries and built through heroic effort, the American railroad network was bigger in every sense than Europe’s, and facilitated everything from long-distance travel to commuting and transporting goods to waging war. It united far-flung parts of the country, boosted economic development, and was the catalyst for America’s rise to world-power status.
Every American town, great or small, aspired to be connected to a railroad and by the turn of the century, almost every American lived within easy access of a station. By the early 1900s, the United States was covered in a latticework of more than 200,000 miles of railroad track and a series of magisterial termini, all built and controlled by the biggest corporations in the land. The railroads dominated the American landscape for more than a hundred years but by the middle of the twentieth century, the automobile, the truck, and the airplane had eclipsed the railroads and the nation started to forget them.
In The Great Railroad Revolution, renowned railroad expert Christian Wolmar tells the extraordinary story of the rise and the fall of the greatest of all American endeavors, and argues that the time has come for America to reclaim and celebrate its often-overlooked rail heritage.
states to bring in legislation controlling railroad rates. It was no coincidence that it was the states where the Grange was most active that became the first to control freight charges. Minnesota, the birthplace of Kelley’s movement, passed a law fixing railroad rates and providing for a railroad commissioner in 1871. Two years later, similar legislation was introduced in Illinois, where many Granges had also been formed. Iowa and Wisconsin followed suit the next year, and by the end of the
and a few other mining lines followed suit. The Baltimore & Ohio, pioneering as ever, was the first railroad company to use electric power for passenger trains when it introduced a General Electric system in a 3-mile tunnel section of a new line around Baltimore in 1895. The experiment proved successful, but the technology was still too unreliable for large-scale mainline operation. A small railroad in California, the narrow-gauge North Shore Railroad, was the first to electrify a suburban
arrangement, thereby ensuring that in the future, the conductor would be in charge of the train. To his passengers, however, Ayres was politeness personified. He remained with the Erie for thirty years, achieving fame and public recognition for the excellence of the service he gave to both his passengers and his employers. Ayres once persuaded an old lady who had left her umbrella, a precious family heirloom, on a connecting ferryboat that he had arranged for it to be sent via the telegraph
individuals who read the full draft and provided detailed corrections and suggestions: Clyde Williams, Gerald Rawling, John Fowler, Andrew Dow, and John Sears. I cannot thank them enough. Some of the mistakes they uncovered required a level of attention to detail and knowledge that astonishes me. Many other people provided support, advice, corrections, or information. In no particular order: Robert Lester Porter, Fritz Plous and the people on his e-mail list, Diana Bailey Harris, Teresa Glynn
regularly attacking railroad workers’ camps, and the graders needed military protection. General Sherman, who was in command of military forces in the West, had devised a plan to drive Native Americans away from the route of the railroad to create a large swath of “no-man’s-land.” With the military burning tepee villages and killing indiscriminately, a protracted and bloody war broke out in the Great Plains on both sides of the Kansas Pacific. The tracks became a forbidden area for Native