Snakeheads, again

One of the challenges of assessing antebellum travel is the lack of comprehensive accident statistics. In a previous post, I suggested that while stories of "snakeheads” (rails snapping loose and flying up through the bottom of carriages) were perhaps not as widespread as their prominence in some memoirs of the period suggests. (In the comments section of that post, a reader helpfully provided a few more examples.) While researching a series of railroad advertisements from the antebellum era, I recently came across another data point on the subject which I found of interest.

In an 1844 advertisement for its new line of cars, the Phoenix Line in Pennsylvania boasted that its cars were "all new and of a very superior quality, both for safety and comfort.” One aspect of this safety was the fact that "the bottoms of all the Cars are lined with heavy boiler iron, so that in case of a break or loose rail on the road, it will be impossible for any thing to penetrate or break through the bottom of the Cars." Clearly, this company felt that it had an important safety measure worthy of the public's attention. In all my reading on antebellum railroads, this is the first time that I've seen a specific reference to this type of safety measure in an advertisement: usually, advertisements boasted about the speed of travel or the convenience of connections. Nevertheless, it seems that the management of the Phoenix Line felt that this was worthy of the public's notice, and might help assuage any fears they had about travel.

So: while we many never know exactly how many rails posed a danger to travelers by snakeheads, this advertisement offers another way in which they were part of the contemporary conversation about travel, not just in the memories of travelers after the antebellum era.

The quotation is courtesy the American Antiquarian Society, which holds a copy of the broadside.

Releasing data on antebellum southern railroad income

I am very pleased to say that the data which undergirds a portion of chapter five of my book Railroads in the Old South is now available for anyone else to use for their own purposes. The Magazine of Early American Datasets provides a platform to share data on the early American economy, and I'm taking advantage of that to release the data on railroad income and passenger traffic that I covered in the book.

When writing Railroads in the Old South, I wanted to address the issue of what impact the railroads had on the antebellum South's consumer society. The classic assessment of railroads on this point came from U.B. Phillips, who argued that southern railroads were mostly concerned with carrying staple goods to the coast and had little meaningful traffic in the other direction. Other historians have echoed these sentiments. When I delved into the corporate records, however, a slightly different picture emerged.

When I read through the annual reports of southern railroads, I found that some reported their freight income based on which direction the freight was traveling. Thus, I could compare the company's "downfreight" (usually staple crops traveling from the interior to the port cities) to the "upfreight" (freight going into the interior). Reading through the reports of the South Carolina Railroad, I was surprised to see that on only six occasions between 1834 and 1857, the upfreight constituted less than 50% of the company's annual income. In all other instances, it was above 50%. Moreover, the value of upfreight climbed steadily throughout the antebellum era.

To be sure, it is difficult to achieve a full reconstruction of the performance of these corporations. All we have are the records they left us, which don't always answer the questions we would like to have answered. And not all railroads conformed to this pattern. Nevertheless, I thought that it was worthy of mentioning in the book as a challenge to the Phillips consensus about southern railroad performance. Additionally, I would hope that these data suggest that we are due a more comprehensive treatment of southern consumerism than we have had up to this point.

Compiling all that data took time, and so I'm happy to share it here and save others the trouble. This page links directly to the files which are downloadable on the MEAD website. I'd like to extend my sincere thanks to Billy Smith of Montana State University for getting the materials up at MEAD, and hope that others will be able to make use of this material.

An early visitor to Lawrence University

While researching early American transportation at the Huntington Library, I read several journals of people who made trips to the Midwest. I was pleasantly surprised to come across one account of someone visiting my alma mater, Lawrence University, in 1858, when the school was just 11 years old.

Edward G. Faile was a businessman who took a trip from Buffalo to Minneapolis in 1858, and on November 4 he stopped in Appleton, Wisconsin. He wrote the following brief note in his journal: "Arrived at Appleton at 9 PM. Left at 6 AM on the 5th. Appleton on a bluff some 60 feet above the River. Has a primary school attached to College of 250 schollars. Both sexes. College class about 70 males and same females both sexes been admitted to the college or females may take a separate course, & graduate." At the time, Lawrence had a preparatory school in addition to the college; the first college class graduated in 1857.

Faile's description is a brief one, but he clearly picked up on Lawrence's early commitment to coeducation. In his history of Lawrence, Charles Breunig writes that "by 1856-57, there was no difference between the preparatory courses for men and women" although women could pursue music and "ornamental branches." The college courses were not fully integrated until 1867, but (as Faile alluded) the college nevertheless allowed women the option to take the same college courses as men "as early as 1854-55," and Breunig notes that "numerous women chose this option, including two out of the three in the first graduating class" (pages 31, 34). 

The Lawrence University Archives was kind enough to confirm that Faile's assessment of enrollment matches with their own records for 1858: roughly 70 men and 50 women in the college and 170 students in the preparatory school. Faile's comment is short, but plainly he found Lawrence's coeducational program worthy of note as he journeyed west.

Sources: Edward G. Faile, Diary of a trip from Buffalo, N.Y. to Minneapolis, Minnesota, October 22-December 2, 1858, HM 40040, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California; Charles Breunig, "A Great and Good Work": A History of Lawrence University, 1846-1964 (Appleton, WI: Lawrence University Press, 1993).

What's in a name? "Railroad" vs. "the cars"

Keyword searches are a wonderful boon to research. When I started researching railroads years ago, I quickly saw that Americans did not quickly settle on one spelling for the railroad. Depending on the sophistication of the search engine, I would do single or multiple searches for "rail road," "rail-road," and "railroad."

But while combing through antebellum records, I also noticed a different term often used to describe the railroad: "the cars." Trains consist of groups of cars, and this seemed to be a linguistic linkage to an older type of transport, the horse-drawn cart or carriage. When I was new to the subject, I didn't even know that this would be a possibility, but it neatly illustrated the challenge of the keyword search: I had to know how things were referred to at the time in order to get the best results. Only by getting into the primary documents and learning about "cars" could I make sure that I was getting all the results.

Google Books's Ngram Viewer allows us to see how "railroad" eventually overtook all competitors for the chief way to refer to this technology ("railroad" is in green, "cars" in blue, "rail-road" in orange and "rail road" in red; click chart to enlarge it):

Despite the quick ascent of "railroad" (it overtakes all competitors in 1835 and never looks back), "cars" still enjoyed a modest rise throughout the antebellum era. To me, this chart illustrates not only the importance of the iterative process of research (search for material, read the material to learn new terms, and search again) but also the variety of ways in which antebellum Americans referred to this new technology. Most of them rode the railroad, but even in the late 1850s plenty of Americans were riding in the cars.