Saturday, June 04, 2011

New Book: "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America" by Richard White

"'Railroaded': Richard White's history of the messy, haphazard development of America's railroads" by Bruce Ramsey, © The Seattle Times, June 4, 2011. (Book Review)

"Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, historian Richard White's account of the development of America's transcontinental railroads, is a story rife with messiness and failure, 'the triumph of the unfit.' Nonetheless, the routes mapped out in the 19th century are the ones we still use today. ... " [More]

[Courtesy Google Alerts.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems ironic that a professor at the University created using the wealth resulting from the Central Pacific Railroad is apparently complaining that the railroad was "Overbuilt, prone to bankruptcy and receivership, wretchedly managed, politically corrupt, environmentally harmful, and financially wasteful, these corporations nonetheless helped create a world where private success often came from luck, fortunate timing, and state intervention. Profit arose more from financial markets and insider contracts than from . . . "

The bigger picture is that that the CPRR did not go bankrupt, the Big Four risked their entire personal fortunes to build the railroad, finished the railroad seven years ahead of schedule, constructed 10 miles of track in a single day (a record that has never been beaten), the trains are still running on the route built in the 1860's, the loans were repaid in full with interest, and the government made a billion dollars on the deal.

6/05/2011 4:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" 'The issue,' he tells us, 'is not whether transcontinentals eventually proved to be a good idea; it is whether they were a good idea in the mid and late nineteenth century.'

However the nation had decided by 1860 that it WAS a good idea to build the first transcontinental railroad and we can tell this for certain because it was made a part of both the Democrat and Republican political platforms! How grossly unfair to criticize the entrepreneurs who built the transcontinental railroad when the whole country fully agreed with them about the need.

6/21/2011 4:42 PM  
Blogger CPRR Discussion Group said...

New York Times book review.

7/15/2011 11:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Golden Spiked by Paul Page:

" 'The issue is not whether railroads should have been built. The issue is whether they should have been built when and where they were built. And to these questions the answer seems no,' [White] writes.

That seems an easy conclusion to come to a century and a few years more after the fact, and White seems to imagine a different country than the one Americans live in today."

7/20/2011 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first transcontinental railroad was not built at the whim of entrepreneurs, rather it was built where and when as determined by Congress who passed and affirmatively ratified the legislative decision eleven times.

" ... private success often came from luck, fortunate timing, and state intervention. ... "

Falsely equating incredibly hard work to successfully accomplish what the national consensus desired involving years of personal effort and at great personal financial risk dismissively as being "luck and fortunate timing" reflects a despicable ingratitude to the great men who created a modern transcontinental America. Such envy of others' great success is not rational nor is it a desirable personality trait.

Derision of past "state intervention" is also ironic at this time of massive state intervention growing so rapidly as to likely bankrupt the federal government. While most state intervention is harmful, inefficient, and counterproductive, the role of the government in the first transcontinental railroad actually was to enable private financing (without any actual subsidy) for a project the national consensus agreed was necessary.

7/20/2011 5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See related discussion.

7/20/2011 5:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Courtesy of Google Alerts, an additional book review by Ron Briley.

11/27/2011 4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Discussion at

11/27/2011 5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also see,

As the High-Speed Rail Debate Rages On, Stanford Historian Becomes Big Critic. by Jon Brooks, KQED News, December 7, 2011.

Fast Train to Nowhere. by Richard White, The New York Times, Op-Ed, April 23, 2011.

Why Not Blow $9 Billion on a Cool Train High-Speed Rail Would Be Great For California – If It Made Any Sense At All. by Richard White, Zocalo Public Square.

[Courtesy Google Alerts.]

12/07/2011 5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also don't forget the political motivation for building the railroad in the 1860's. "Abraham Lincoln sought a transcontinental railroad as 'a means of holding the Pacific coast to the union.' "

1/01/2012 8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An article in the Stanford University News helps reveal what misconceptions and bias could have led to such a confused analysis that apparently just entirely ignores the huge success in building the Central Pacific Railroad:

" ... Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins – they didn't know what they were doing."

" ... historical trap is counterfactual history ... during the Progressive Era ... there would have been no massive corruption. BUT, [WHITE] CAUTIONED, HE'S MAKING ALL THIS UP."

"It was built ahead of demand by people who understood nothing about transportation or the economy."

Seems that this made up stuff is quite self-contradictory, i.e., that if they had only waited for the era of big government they would have avoided the results of big government??? Nonsense!

1/13/2012 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

... And if the CPRR "was built ... by people who understood nothing about transportation ... " how is it that Collis Potter Huntington subsequently also was successful with the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad?

1/20/2012 11:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Railroaded: A conversation with Richard White
and Bill Deverell at the California Historical Society

Illustration: Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, Currier & Ives lithograph, 1868

Dear friends and colleagues,

The current issue of California History, the journal of the California Historical Society, features an in-depth, wide-ranging discussion by five scholars of historian Richard White's new book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

And on Thursday, March 1, [2012] at 6pm you can join the provocative, illuminating conversation with Richard White and historian William Deverell at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco.

Railroaded is a new, incisive history of the transcontinental railroads and how they transformed America in the decades after the Civil War. 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.

We hope you'll join us for this fun and informative evening at the California Historical Society's grand historical headquarters at 678 Mission Street in downtown San Francisco.

To RSVP, click here.

I hope to see you there!

Yours truly,

Jon Christensen
Executive Director
Bill Lane Center for the American West

For more information, please contact:

Bill Lane Center for the American West
Jerry Yang and Akiko Yamazaki Energy and Environment Building
Stanford University
473 Via Ortega
Stanford, CA 94305

2/15/2012 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


May 21, 2012 SLAC Colloquium: Dumb Growth: The Transcontinental Railroads as Overreach

"Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford, will deliver the May 21 SLAC Colloquium. His talk, Dumb Growth: The Transcontinental Railroads as Overreach, begins at 4:15 p.m. in Panofsky Auditorium, with refreshments served at 3:45 p.m.

'Beginning in 1862 and continuing until 1873, the federal government lavishly subsidized private corporations to build into the American West,' White said. 'The result was considerable corruption and political turmoil along with economic waste, environmental destruction and much suffering. But the people who created that crisis did not suffer from it, which is one of several parallels I will make to economic events in the 21st century.'

In his latest book, Railroaded, which was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize in History, White describes how a cabal of often incompetent capitalists managed to make huge fortunes building and operating the nation's first transcontinental railroads – even though they consistently lost money and often went bankrupt.

'Having built ahead of demand,' White wrote in the book's final chapter, 'the railroads had to create traffic in places where there was precious little to sell. Given their high fixed costs, the railroads could not simply wait for profitable traffic to appear. Hauling something, even at a loss, was better than hauling nothing. In attempting to cut economic losses, the railroads helped create both what might be called dumb growth and environmental catastrophes.'

Foremost among these railroad moguls was Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad and later, with his wife, founder of Stanford University.

White has taught at Stanford since 1998. His areas of expertise include corruption in the Gilded Age (late 1860s to 1896), dependency and social change among Native Americans, and the history of the environment, including railroads, rivers and lakes."

5/18/2012 9:19 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Recent Messages