“Type of the modern! emblem of motion and power! pulse of the continent!” Walt Whitman sang in praise of the railroad. When he published those lines in 1876, the vast network that connected West to East was being widely hailed as the muscular marvel of the industrial age. It sped the bounty of farms and factories across the land, spawned hundreds of towns and cities along its routes, pioneered in marketing and managerial organization, and employed a huge and growing labor force. The men who created and ran the transcontinentals — Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Jay Gould, Mark Hopkins, Charles Francis Adams Jr., among others — were as famous in their era as such high-tech moguls as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are today. Their entrepreneurial daring did much to transform the United States into a prosperous, developed nation.
Illustration by Carl DeTorres
Richard White will have none of it. “Transcontinental railroads,” he asserts in “Railroaded,” “were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long.” This is a bold indictment, but White supports it convincingly with lavish detail and prose that swivels easily from denunciation to irony.
To gain an edge on their corporate rivals, railroad owners built expensive lines into drought-prone areas that had few settlers and little prospect of attracting more. To finance their risky endeavors, they routinely bribed politicians and borrowed money they could not pay back — while publishing mendacious financial reports. To insure friendly coverage, railroad executives bankrolled local newspapers and arranged to kill or delay the publication of stories that might damage their interests. At the helm of a dangerous industry where workplace accidents were common, they resisted installing air brakes and other devices that would have sharply reduced the toll of maimings and deaths. “The Northern Pacific,” White says, “banned unnecessary whistle blowing on the Sabbath and profane language any day, but it slaughtered workers day in and day out.”
A distinguished historian of the West who teaches at Stanford, White draws some of his most damning evidence from the private papers of the corporate moguls themselves. Away from their publicists, they come across as men whose characters were as flawed — and as captivating — as their industry. Collis P. Huntington of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific lines had the soul of a miser. In 1890, a train pulling his private car hit a young hotel worker as she walked along the tracks in rural Missouri. Huntington initially offered to pay for her medical care. But she died after a botched amputation. And when the doctors and undertaker submitted their bills, he abruptly changed his mind. The millionaire grumbled that he “could not possibly protect [him]self from swindle so long as [he] manifested a willingness to show substantial sympathy.” In total, the expenses came to $622. “Huntington would not have looked twice if these had been costs of lobbying,” White observes.
In contrast, Charles Francis Adams Jr., the head of the Union Pacific, regarded himself as a genteel intellectual. The grandson and great-grandson of presidents was merely dabbling, temporarily, in the biggest industry in the land, which he vowed to reform. Adams scorned the venality of his fellow railroad bosses. “Our method of doing business is founded upon lying, cheating and stealing — all bad things,” he remarked. But such high-mindedness did not prevent Adams from playing the game as ruthlessly as his competitors, albeit not as effectively. When the Union Pacific neared bankruptcy in 1890, Adams had to resign his post. On his way out, he ridiculed the looks and clothes of Jay Gould, his more cunning successor.
White seems to take particular pleasure in belittling the image of the man who founded the well-endowed university that currently employs him. Californians liked Leland Stanford well enough to elect him governor. Later, the State Legislature graced him with a seat in the United States Senate. But Stanford’s partners in the railroad business considered him to be a lazy and incompetent fool. “He could do it,” Mark Hopkins wrote about some corporate task, “but not without more mental effort than is agreeable to him.” Stanford, Collis Huntington added, “has never made any money, but has had a good deal made for him and knows no more of its value when he gets it than he does of the way in which it was obtained.”
White’s scathing narrative is often reminiscent of older histories and novels about the Gilded Age that pit clever, if immoral, “robber barons” against a public that grew increasingly alarmed about the extent of their power and ill-gotten wealth. “The Octopus,” Frank Norris’s 1901 novel about the Southern Pacific, is a classic example.
But White calls Huntington and his ilk “men in octopus suits.” He views them as 19th-century equivalents of the profit-mad, short-sighted financiers who recently undermined economies on both sides of the Atlantic. Both transcontinental railroad managers then and the Wall Street bankers in our time ran “highly leveraged operations” that “depended on continued borrowing to meet their obligations.” Both groups made it rich because they had powerful enablers in Washington. In the 1870s and 1890s, when panicked investors dumped the heavily watered stock in their railroad portfolios, the market collapsed, and long depressions ensued. We seem to have escaped the same fate — with an assist from “socialist” government bailouts and stimuli.
Federal largess was hardly absent during the Gilded Age. True, the government was not in the habit of rescuing mismanaged corporations nor, for that matter, of offering aid to ordinary Americans who lost jobs and homes when the economy collapsed. Grover Cleveland, the Democrat who sat in the White House during the depression of the 1890s, intoned, “Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people.” Yet, in 1894, Cleveland’s attorney general, Richard Olney, rushed to court to bust a national strike by railroad workers who were expressing solidarity with a walkout by employees of the Pullman sleeping car company. With a federal injunction in hand, Cleveland ordered thousands of American troops to break the strike and arrest its leaders. At the time, the attorney general was on the payroll of at least one major railroad company.
At the end of his powerful book, crowded with telling details and shrewd observations about nearly every aspect of the world the railroad bosses made, White floats a counterfactual balloon: what if the steel lines that spanned the continent had been “built as demand required” instead of as part of a competitive dash that caused as much waste and hardship as progress? Slower, more rational development would have lessened the damage to the environment, given Native Americans a chance to adapt to conquest and perhaps saved thousands of lives. White advises, “We need to think about what did not happen in order to think historically.”
Such an alternative past would probably require a different country. The history of American capitalism is stuffed with tales of industries that overbuilt and overpromised and left bankruptcies and distressed ecosystems in their wake: gold and silver mining, oil drilling and nuclear power, to name a few. The railroad barons wielded more power than other businessmen in the Gilded Age. But their behavior revealed a trait they shared with many of their fellow citizens: too much was never enough.
Michael Kazin’s latest book, “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation,” will be published next month. He teaches history at Georgetown University.