American Railroads

University of Chicago Press
Free sample

Few scenes capture the American experience so eloquently as that of a lonely train chugging across the vastness of the Great Plains, or snaking through tortuous high mountain passes. Although this vision was eclipsed for a time by the rise of air travel and trucking, railroads have enjoyed a rebirth in recent years as profitable freight carriers.

A fascinating account of the rise, decline, and rebirth of railroads in the United States, John F. Stover's American Railroads traces their history from the first lines that helped eastern seaports capture western markets to today's newly revitalized industry. Stover describes the growth of the railroads' monopoly, with the consequent need for state and federal regulations; relates the vital part played by the railroads during the Civil War and the two World Wars; and charts the railroads' decline due to the advent of air travel and trucking during the 1950s.

In two new chapters, Stover recounts the remarkable recovery of the railroads, along with other pivotal events of the industry's recent history. During the 1960s declining passenger traffic and excessive federal regulation led to the federally-financed creation of Amtrak to revive passenger service and Conrail to provide freight service on bankrupt northeastern railroads. The real savior for the railroads, though, proved to be the Staggers Rail Act of 1980, which brought prosperity to rail freight carriers by substantially deregulating the industry. By 1995, renewed railroad freight traffic had reached nearly twice its former peak in 1944.

Bringing both a seasoned eye and new insights to bear on one of the most American of industries, Stover has produced the definitive history of railroads in the United States.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Apr 15, 2008
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Pages
324
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ISBN
9780226776606
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Language
English
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Genres
History / United States / General
Science / General
Science / History
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This content is DRM protected.
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For most of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, railroads dominated American transportation. They transformed life and captured the imagination. Yet by 1907 railroads had also become the largest cause of violent death in the country, that year claiming the lives of nearly twelve thousand passengers, workers, and others. In Death Rode the Rails Mark Aldrich explores the evolution of railroad safety in the United States by examining a variety of incidents: spectacular train wrecks, smaller accidents in shops and yards that devastated the lives of workers and their families, and the deaths of thousands of women and children killed while walking on or crossing the street-grade tracks.

The evolution of railroad safety, Aldrich argues, involved the interplay of market forces, science and technology, and legal and public pressures. He considers the railroad as a system in its entirety: operational realities, technical constraints, economic history, internal politics, and labor management. Aldrich shows that economics initially encouraged American carriers to build and operate cheap and dangerous lines. Only over time did the trade-off between safety and output—shaped by labor markets and public policy—motivate carriers to develop technological improvements that enhanced both productivity and safety.

A fascinating account of one of America's most important industries and its dangers, Death Rode the Rails will appeal to scholars of economics and the history of transportation, technology, labor, regulation, safety, and business, as well as to railroad enthusiasts.

-- James W. Ely, Jr.
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In 1789, when the First Congress met in New York City, the members traveled to the capital just as Roman senators two thousand years earlier had journeyed to Rome, by horse, at a pace of some five miles an hour. Indeed, if sea travel had improved dramatically since Caesar's time, overland travel was still so slow, painful, and expensive that most Americans lived all but rooted to the spot, with few people settling more than a hundred miles from the ocean (a mere two percent lived west of the Appalachians). America in effect was just a thin ribbon of land by the sea, and it wasn't until the coming of the steam railroad that our nation would unfurl across the vast inland territory. In Railroads Triumphant, Albro Martin provides a fascinating history of rail transportation in America, moving well beyond the "Romance of the Rails" sort of narrative to give readers a real sense of the railroad's importance to our country. The railroad, Martin argues, was "the most fundamental innovation in American material life." It could go wherever rails could be laid--and so, for the first time, farms, industries, and towns could leave natural waterways behind and locate anywhere. (As Martin points out, the railroads created small-town America just as surely as the automobile created the suburbs.) The railroad was our first major industry, and it made possible or promoted the growth of all other industries, among them coal, steel, flour milling, and commercial farming. It established such major cities as Chicago, and had a lasting impact on urban design. And it worked hand in hand with the telegraph industry to transform communication. Indeed, the railroads were the NASA of the 19th century, attracting the finest minds in finance, engineering, and law. But Martin doesn't merely catalogue the past greatness of the railroad. In closing with the episodes that led first to destructive government regulation, and then to deregulation of the railroads and the ensuing triumphant rebirth of the nation's basic means of moving goods from one place to another, Railroads Triumphant offers an impassioned defense of their enduring importance to American economic life. And it is a book informed by a lifelong love of railroads, brimming with vivid descriptions of classic depots, lavish hotels in Chicago, the great railroad founders, and the famous lines. Thoughtful and colorful by turn, this insightful history illuminates the impact of the railroad on our lives.
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