The transcontinental railroads formed the most ambitious and rather complex federal infrastructure project of the nineteenth century. At one extreme, the construction of the Pacific Railway was absolutely a triumph. On the other hand, its operation, and the operation of the other transcontinentals, was (to put it bluntly) a train wreck.
The thesis of this unique presentation is simple, though it’s not the usual textbook account: the U.S. built too many railroads, we built them too soon, we financed them recklessly, and we allowed them to inflict grave environmental, social, political, and economic damage. All of this was bad enough, and recognized by many at the time, but there’s more. In our own time, Americans have forgotten much of what nineteenth-century Americans came to know. We have celebrated the over-construction that we should be lamenting, and we have often brought the transcontinentals forward as reason to pursue equally dubious current projects.
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White
Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, by David Haward Bain
- Why build a transcontinental railroad in the 1860s?
- Why build multiple transcontinental railroads?
- Can we imagine a counterfactual in which the United States either does not subsidize transcontinental railroads, funds only one and heavily regulates it, or owns the railroad outright?