Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Railroad History Myths Repeated

"A Lesson from Railroad History" by Lawrence W. Reed, President Emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education (, © The Newnan Times-Herald, February 1, 2022. (Article)

" ... The story of the five transcontinental railroads built by 1900 often overlooks some remarkable lessons about private initiative and government subsidies. Four of the five transcontinentals received huge 'donations' from Washington in the form of land grants and taxpayer cash. [Myth #1 – in fact, not subsidies, and it was bond investors' cash (see CPRR prospectus, UPRR)] [James J. Hill's] Great Northern was the only one that accepted neither and the only one that never went bankrupt. [Myth #2 – in fact, the Central Pacific Railroad never went into bankruptcy] ... The lure of subsidies created powerful incentives for the other railroads to throw down tracks just to get the government goodies. That's why hundreds of miles of track had to be replaced later [Myth #3 – in fact, CPRR construction was 'first-class'] before any train could ride them [Myth #4 – in fact, transcontinental train through traffic began immediately and the UPRR's deficient construction was replaced over time]. Historian Burton Folsom, author of the classic book, The Myth of the Robber Barons, reveals that before the lines of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met where the famous Golden Spike connected them, teams from the two railroads blew up each other's track [Myth #5 – in fact, CPRR and UPRR attacking each other with explosives never happened, likely a complete misinterpretation of a newspaper illustration because its explanation was printed on a different page separated from the engraving.] to claim more land and cash from Washington. ... " [More]

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[Mr. Reed and his excellent Foundation for Economic Education has for more than seven decades been the leader in teaching free market economic principles. The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum has been attempting to correct a number of what appear to be widespread myths from the secondary literature representing incorrect transcontinental railroad history, but unfortunately a few have crept into this recent article. Any corrections needed to these errata, and help in documenting the actual history with primary sources will be greatly appreciated.]