The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America

  • Christian Wolmar
  • Public Affairs
  • 397 pp.

A British chronicler of trains makes the case that Alexander Hamilton’s forceful pragmatism fueled the rapid growth of the first U.S. railroads.

Reviewed by Michael Causey

Christian Wolmar likes trains. No, he really likes trains.

In his ninth book about them, the English writer and broadcaster continues his railroad chronicles by exploring the transformative spread of tracks in America from sea to shining sea. The railroads made America. For more than 100 years the tracks and the power brokers behind them dominated the physical landscape and the quest for manifest destiny. But when air travel and cars largely replaced them, they were forgotten almost as quickly as they had risen.

With an outsider’s perspective, Wolmar also makes an interesting argument that the United States, as evidenced by the rapid expansion of the rail system, was a nation of Thomas Jefferson’s words but Alexander Hamilton’s ideas.

Wolmar skillfully focuses on seemingly dry matter, the standardization of track gauges, to make his point. “The move to standardize gauge was the globalization of its day,” he writes, “the natural province of the free traders and the settlers who wanted to create one big America best represented by the views of Federalist founding father Alexander Hamilton.”

Others, like Jefferson, favored limiting the scope of trains by encouraging different track gauges in different states, so that trains would need to stop at certain stations and be replaced by a different train using a different gauge.

As tends to happen even today, Jefferson’s prose won hearts but Hamilton’s forceful pragmatism won minds — and the battle.

Hamilton’s legacy arguably helped preserve the Union during the Civil War, because his vision inspired a larger and vastly more efficient train network in the North. Southern states, with fewer rail lines and less standardization, were at a disadvantage during the conflict because the North could move supplies and troops with greater speed and mobility.

Wolmar also strong demonstrates, with an effective blend of statistics and anecdotes, how American railroads began their decline after World War I.

Some railroad magnates were victims of their own overconfidence. They underestimated how automobiles would challenge, and then supersede, their mode of transportation. As one railroad promoter claimed in 1916, “the fad of automobile riding will gradually wear off and the time will be soon here when a very large part of the people will cease to think of automobile rides.”

But more than overconfidence doomed American trains. While railroads continued losing competitive ground to cars and airplanes before and after World War II, it was the creation of the interstate network of superhighways under President Dwight Eisenhower that was the “real killer” for railroads as a dominant transportation force in America.

Wolmar moves on shakier ground when he repeats the oft-made claim that Eisenhower was the driving force, as it were, behind the creation of the car network because Ike remembered how difficult an automobile trip across the country had been for him as a young officer. As Earl Swift wrote in Big Roads, it is President Franklin Roosevelt who deserves the most White House credit for the eventual road network.

At any rate, the next time you take a pleasant train ride from D.C.’s historic Union Station to Philadelphia or New York, raise your glass to President Lyndon Johnson. Wolmar calls LBJ the last presidential rail enthusiast. It was LBJ who helped passenger railroads make a small comeback with what became Amtrak, a nationally owned railroad company.

Amtrak has had its share of stumbles, but Wolmar also makes a case that it deserves some credit for succeeding to the extent it has despite a lack of a cohesive regulatory and supportive fiscal policy on Capitol Hill. “That is summed up by a bald statistic: the total government subsidy to Amtrak since its creation in 1971 amounts to less than one year’s federal funding for the highways.”

I do have a quibble: Wolmar gave Abraham Lincoln short shrift as one of the early advocates of railroad expansion. Had Lincoln served out his second term, reconstruction and a railway linking the east coast to the west were two of his highest priorities.

“Lincoln himself, however, needed no persuading of the vital nature of the railroads ... he had done so much to ensure the railroads could cross the Mississippi, but he also pioneered the concepts of politicians’ whistle-stop tours during his election campaign,” Wolmar writes. Yes, Lincoln does get some credit, but in a 397-page book the 16th president probably deserved a few more pages.

Wolmar clearly wishes the railroads had remained more of a social, economic and transportation force in the United States. His fine book will likely make many feel the same way. Yet just as the Hamiltonian philosophy propelled a national railroad network in the 18th century, that same relentless capitalistic drive for more, more, more, faster, faster, faster also meant that when Henry Ford emerged with the Model T, it was only a matter of time before Hamilton’s followers forgot about railroads and shifted their attention to a shiny new toy.

Michael Causey has written about transportation, automotive and energy issues for more than two decades. He was pleased to learn in this book about the Causey Arch, which was built in 1725 and is the world’s oldest stone railroad bridge.

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