Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Populism in Relation to Railroads

From: "Daniel Schlessinger" daniel@coinstuff.com

I am a national qualifier for a history competition called National History Day, and my project this year concerns the Negative Effects of the Transcontinental Railroad. Your website has been invaluable to my research as well as my general level of interest in the topic.

I wondered if you had or knew of places to find cartoons or pictures of populist movements in relation to the railroad? I have found plenty of textual information on the Omaha Platform, for example, but cannot find many pictures.

—Daniel Schlessinger

15 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some 19th century cartoons about the transcontinental railroad are from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and, from Harper's Weekly.

Think that there was a cartoon depicting the railroad as an octopus, but not sure where this was published. Perhaps it is in one of the editions of the muckraking The Octopus: a Story of California by Frank Norris, but the Google Books online copy doesn't seem to include that cartoon.

Political cartoons are difficult as they depend on having a very detailed knowledge of the moment, and can easily become unintelligible with the passage of time.

We see negative comments about the transcontinental railroad based on presumed racism against the Chinese, but this appears to get the history exactly backwards, because the CPRR instead is an excellent example of the necessities of a market economy forcing people to overcome prevailing prejudices.

Also, the populist anger against the railroads seems mostly a total lack of perspective, as the complaint amounts to a claim that it is just terrible that the transcontinental railroad only reduced the cost of transportation by 90% instead of by 95%.

Another complaint was about supposed government subsidies for the railroad construction (actually they were loans that were repaid with interest), but instead the net result was that the railroads actually subsidized the federal government by about a billion dollars in reduced federal railroad transportation charges through the first half of the twentieth century.

6/08/2010 6:15 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Thank you very much. This information is very interesting, and sheds a whole new light on my project.

6/09/2010 10:17 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Daniel Schlessinger" daniel@coinstuff.com
Subject: Populism in Relation to Railroads

Thanks! Here are a few questions:

1. To what extent was "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" an allegory of Populism after the railroad?

2. What corruption was involved in building the railroad?

3. I have heard that Populism resulted after supposedly anti-railroad politicians such as Leland Stanford and Horace Carpentier got elected on that premise, only to go on to champion the railroad in their respective areas. To what extent is this true, and if so, who would you put at blame for it?

4. What was the validity of the populists movements' (Omaha Platform, The Grange, etc.) claims in relation to railroads?

5. Some people compare the building of our Transcontinental Railroad to Germany's Bismarkian development of that same time period. Without the railroad, would the US have had the capabilities to launch "Total War" during World War I? (I'm sorry for the somewhat non-railroad-related question.)

6. How many people died during the construction of the railroad (workers)?

7. Were the critics of the railroad at the end, the same as the ones in the beginning?

8. Did any Chinese workers go into government positions or high level jobs after their work on the railroads?

9. How did the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad affect the Civil War?

10. An odd coincidence happened when the Railroad bill was passed. The lead author of the Transcendentalist movement (Henry David Thoreau), the literary movement that stressed man's connection to nature and nothing else, died that same day. Did the railroad represent a death to the natural aspect of farming and of everyday life?


I know that most all of these questions are in-depth analysis questions, so I completely understand if you don't answer all of them. ... Thank you!

—Daniel Schlessinger

6/09/2010 10:42 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: kylewyatt@aol.com

Check out the San Francisco Wasp from the 1880s.

The Wasp (magazine)

The Sting of The Wasp, February 1 - April 15, 2005, The Ohio State University Cartoon Research Library

The San Francisco Wasp: An Illustrated History, California History, Fall, 2005 by James J. Rawls

The Wasp: Stinging Editorials and Political Cartoons

Mussel Slough editorial cartoon - The Wasp 8 July 1881

The Wasp

Wasp cartoon on Oscar Wilde

Also check some of these references:

Sources For Railroad Cartoons

—Kyle Wyatt

6/09/2010 11:21 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Larry Mullaly" lmullaly@jeffnet.org

I can address some of your questions.

Just as a starter: the railroads during the period between 1850 and 1910 were the major engines of development in the United States. The demand for iron and steel brought about our industrial revolution. The railroads also led to the maturation of the nation's banking and investment systems. They are responsible for opening up millions of acres of land to settlers, and facilitated easy transportation/communication of ordinary people. Being so important, they also deeply impacted the day to day activities of legislators, and fully shared in all the graft, greed and corruption of this age.

1. You would have to review the literary criticism in this regard. Oz was appearance without power. The railroads both displayed and possessed enormous political and economic power in their heyday.

2. There was no more nor less corruption in most railroads than there was in the political and commercial classes of this time. The difference is that because of their scale, whatever percentage of illicit earnings or improper political influence the railroads exercised was larger than that other ventures such as shipping, whiskey manufacture, land acquisition. Through the 1870s, politics at the state and national level assumed a system based on patronage, payoffs, favoritism and a high amount of inefficiency. The railroad were built in spite of these challenges, as much as because of them.

3. The important railroads were built prior to the beginning of the populist movement circa 1890. Like government and taxes, railroad were easy targets for criticism by early populists, some of it deserved, much of it not deserved.

4. Stanford was governor of California for a short period during the Civil War and a US Senator from 1885 till his death in 1893. He ran on a railroad platform to get elected governor and was true to his word. He was a lackluster senator (but keep in mind that the state legislatures not the people) elected senators during this period. Horace Carpentier founded the town of Oakland California and served as mayor for a while in the 1850s. He has no subsequent political role of signifigance. Neither man is a good example for what your are trying to demonstrate.

Countless lesser men, however, ran on anti-railroad platforms and then quietly supported railroad corporations once in office. In one way or another this probably applies to most California legislators during the 1870-1890s. This is probably true of most other states.

5. The Granger movement dates to the early 1870s and was inspired by what was alleged to be excessive railroad rates and other problems in the midwest. It never took root in California, my area of knowledge.

6. The biggest test of the American railroad system was the Civil War where the northern infrastructure (compared with the south's small systems) greatly abetted the Union cause. All subsequent wars including Korea and probably Vietnam were heavily dependent on the railroad system.

7. Chinese workers involved in building the railroad were illiterate manual laborers subcontracted in groups through independent labor contractors. I am unaware of any Chinese during the 1860-1880s who were actually hired by the railroad as true railroad employees or who achieved any rank of prominence.

10. Literary figures of the 19th century generally took a dim view of technology, railroads included. The romantic pastoralism or medievalism they espoused makes for attractive literature, but it tends to be unreflective of actual agrarian life which was pretty grim. If we all lived like Thoreau (one of my favorite writers) would wish us to, we would starve to death in short order

Out of time, got to go. Hope this helps a little.

—Larry Mullaly

6/09/2010 11:49 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: "Kevin Bunker" mikadobear45@yahoo.com

Wow, Daniel. What a loaded question, or series of questions. With all due respect — what you're asking – frankly – is worthy of at least a master's thesis or PhD dissertation.

That said, Baum claimed the story was purely for entertainment of his contemporary children.

Reading more into the reasoning he may have had for writing such a social idealist tale might be risky. Recall that even Freud said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," even though the psychoanalyst had something altogether else in mind in making that utterance.

US Railroads were no more corrupt in the transitional 19th-20th century period than any other grandiose industrial enterprise or the stock market and commercial banking sectors. All were deeply intertwined, so draw your own conclusions. All were entirely "for profit" enterprises, period.

In no way was Leland Stanford ever elected as a Populist. Hiram Johnson was a Populist electee who was all about overturning the entrenched power and wealth of men in Stanford's rank.

It's abundantly clear that the US industrial infrastructure – with its host of railroads – greatly facilitated the US entry into the Great European War (WW I), "the War to End All Wars," but — for good or ill — it was deemed to necessary to reduce redundancy and conflicting services and manufacturing through control of the railroads and their suppliers through the War Department and the United States Railroad Administration under its Director General William McAdoo.

There is likely no way to ever adequately or accurately quantify the total number of fatalities resulting from any US railroad construction project; too many lines used independent or quasi-independent contractors to prosecute the roughest or most hazardous work and record keeping was hardly the best. There were also incidences of diseases of all sorts that could have serious impact on camps of railroad building crews.

(continued below)

6/09/2010 4:10 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

Your question 7. Were the critics of the railroad at the end, the same as the ones in
the beginning? Please. That just is too open-ended if not a wholly invalid question. You would be better off narrowing that to a specific region, decade, railroad company. All were not equal at any time.

If you are working on your masters or another college or university paper, then I can only suggest that it's time for you to get hold of some well-researched (scholarly) histories on the development and construction of the US railroads from the 1840s to circa 1910. Read them cover to cover, period. Pay attention to the end and footnotes.

While there is value in reading Frank Norris's semi-fictional The Octopus on the battles between California railroads and agrarian interests, it is hyperbolic and couched in overwroguth Populist rhetoric. It has very tiny grains of truth but is otherwise too skewed to be seen as wholly accurate.

There are numerous titles covering men like Great Northern Railway's James J. Hill a.k.a "the Empire Builder;" Edward Henry Harriman; Collis Potter Huntington [look to David Lavender's The Great Pursuader as the most accurate Huntington analysis and portrayal] and certainly some of the more recent books on Theodore Roosevelt, such as T.R. or Theodore Rex. Try to avoid the more recent book Nothing Like It in the World on the Central Pacific. It was ghost-written and is fraught with errors that compound much earlier errors, both in fact, omission and commission.

Good luck.

—Kevin Bunker

6/09/2010 4:10 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

The building of the transcontinental railroads was just the start of the relationship between United States defense and transportation. Eisenhower's experiences while crossing the country with a military convoy as a young man led to his creating years later of the interstate highway system while president.

6/09/2010 4:18 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: kylewyatt@aol.com

I'll insert answers below.

1. To what extent was "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" an allegory of Populism after the railroad?

There were certainly allegorical aspects to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – but those themes were much broader than just the railroads. For instance, "silver slippers" was about returning the country to the Silver Standard for monetary policy (and was changed to "ruby slippers" in the movie because "silver slippers" were still too politicized for Hollywood).

2. What corruption was involved in building the railroad?

As arguably the nation's biggest business of the time, railroads included big corruption. But I'd say it was no more than any large business creates opportunities for corruption (then and now). Also keep in mind that what constituted "corruption" had different standards then than now. For instance, modern standards of conflict of interest were generally not recognized at the time. Leland Stanford could be Governor of California and President of the Central Pacific Railroad at the same time (for only 2 years until his term as Governor ended). And it the 1880s he could be elected as a US Senator (by the state legislature, as Senators were elected at the time) while still being President of the Central Pacific. Neither of these were considered inappropriate by the standards of the time. Yet equally obviously the practices of the Union Pacific's Crédit Mobilier were considered corrupt by the standards of the time, and resulted in legal action. Just be careful when judging past actions by (inappropriate) modern standards.

3. I have heard that Populism resulted after supposedly anti-railroad politicians such as Leland Stanford and Horace Carpentier got elected on that premise, only to go on to champion the railroad in their respective areas. To what extent is this true, and if so, who would you put at blame for it?

Reviewing both Stanford's and Carpenter's backgrounds and early experiences, I doubt that anyone could ever have described them as "anti-railroad," even in their early years. And I believe the origins of the Populist movement, and Grange and Greenback movements before them, had a whole lot to do with very broad socio-economic and political conditions extending far beyond just railroads. Certainly railroad rates were one of the focuses of the various movements, but far form the sole or primary focus.

(continued below)

6/10/2010 3:10 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

4. What was the validity of the populists movements' (Omaha Platform, The Grange, etc.) claims in relation to railroads?

While I'm not familiar in detail with the various party platforms, I think it fair to say that those documents contained a lot of truth from the perspective of those who wrote them. At the same time, contrary perspectives also contained a lot of truths. These things are rarely simply black and white.

5. Some people compare the building of our Transcontinental Railroad to Germany's Bismarkian development of that same time period. Without the railroad, would the US have had the capabilities to launch "Total War" during World War I? (I'm sorry for the somewhat non-railroad-related question.)

I do not believe the US could have brought their industrial and material might to bear in either WW I or WWII without the railroads. No other mode of transporation could have moved the needed traffic across the US.

6. How many people died during the construction of the railroad (workers)?

Good question – and one that is hotly debated. I do not believe that anyone has actually performed a sound scholarly and statistical study to even come up with a rough estimate. For myself, I think that far less died on the Central Pacific than many modern published accounts would have you believe. And my suspicion is that more workers actually died building the Union Pacific than on the Central Pacific. But there is no solid body of statistical studies that I can reliably turn to for the answer. Keeping in mind that all labor tended to be hard and dangerous in those days. And that many deaths occurred due to sickness and accidental mischance. Keep in mind that among the armies of the Civil War, only 1/3 of the casualties were directly related to fighting. Fully 2/3 of casualties were due to illness and accident completely unrelated to the fighting. I don't think that building the Central Pacific and Union Pacific were significantly more risky than many other employments that laborers might work in.

7. Were the critics of the railroad at the end, the same as the ones in the beginning?

Some critics remained critics throughout. Some started favorable and became critical. And some even started critical and became favorable.

8. Did any Chinese workers go into government positions or high level jobs after their work on the railroads?

Given bigotries and prejudices of the times, against Chinese (but also against other ethnic groups), this question makes no sense. The Chinese Exclusion Act (signed into law in 1882) should be ample evidence of that. On the other hand, there were plenty of Chinese who became very prosperous merchants, and even contractors.

(continued below)

6/10/2010 3:11 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

9. How did the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad affect the Civil War?

I would suggest that the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad had next to no direct impact on the Civil War, since well over 90% of the construction occurred after the end of the war. But the War did have direct impacts on the construction of the railroad, since railroad equipment and supplies were expensive and in short supply, being consumed by the war, and also money was very tight to finance the railroads.

10. An odd coincidence happened when the Railroad bill was passed. The lead author of the Transcendentalist movement (Henry David Thoreau), the literary movement that stressed man's connection to nature and nothing else, died that same day. Did the railroad represent a death to the natural aspect of farming and of everyday life?

Your dates are a bit off:

Henry David Thoreau date of death — 6 May 1862

The Senate passed the Pacific Railway Act on June, 20, 1862, by a vote of 35 to 5.
The House of Representatives passed this act on June 24,1862, by a vote of 104 to 21.
The Pacific Railway Act was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862.

As to the railroads representing a death to the natural aspect of farming – I don't know that I'd go in that direction. Certainly the railroads promoted more large-scale agriculture by allowing shipment of produce over large distances. But changes along those lines were already going on, and I wouldn't ascribe it just to the railroads.

—Kyle Wyatt

6/10/2010 3:12 AM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

From: vandtrr@cs.com

I will add my two-cents worth here to the last question. Family farms were a way of life before the railroad and continued so until the Great Depression forced many families off their property. My father grew up on one during 1913-1931. My wife grew up on one as well as did one or both parents of many friends.

The transcontinental railroads contributed greatly to the standard of living after they were finished. Eastern goods of all kinds became affordable. It is obvious that after the railroads were completed entire families could migrate west with little danger of dying on the way. This migration brought more doctors, lawyers and other professional people necessary to a higher standard of living. Many people who came west before the railroad had horrific experiences crossing the country in wagon trains or during long and dangerous journeys by ship. This dissuaded them from returning east to see their families until the transcontinental railroads were finished. The local newspapers of the 1870 had many mentions of local people returning east to see their parents, siblings and friends for the first time since their arrival in California and Nevada. Some of these guys actually went east and brought back as wives, women whom they had known many years before.

Did the railroads lead to a loss of natural flora and fauna. Of course. But that was going on before the railroads as well. it simply happened faster after the railroads were built. Did the increased population change the face of the west? Of course, but it was still a great place to live until after World War II when the rest of country (including me) decided to move to California!

—Charlie Siebenthal

6/10/2010 3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See, caution to students.

6/10/2010 5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two supplied questions which could be used to mislead students are to find "Problems with the Central Pacific railroad" and "dangers of building a railroad" by falsely implying racism and mistreatment while what actually happened was the greatest engineering project of the 19th century, overcoming of prevalent racial prejudice against the Chinese in California, saving vast numbers of lives by making transportation safer, and raising the standard of living in the United States which caused a dramatic increase in longevity.

11/22/2010 12:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is an example of shameful ingratitude and the anti-capitalistic mentality – this is the "thanks" that a group of local Sacramento, California merchants got when they were wildly successful at their heroic effort that completed building a transcontinental railroad that many thought impossible seven years ahead of schedule, thereby reducing the time and cost of travel by the public by 90%, and allowing travel at drastically reduced risk:

" ... literary figures of the first order—devoted themselves to investigating and dispatching the Central Pacific Railroad, a company that, at the time, was a model of unchecked corporate greed ... The ruthless, well-financed Central Pacific Railroad deserved no sympathy. The company had helped build the transcontinental railroad and reaped tremendous profits as it built a corrupt and ruthless monopoly along the way. ... "

8/23/2012 2:20 PM  

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