SHEAR 2012

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic in Baltimore. For me, SHEAR hits the sweet spot for conference size: large enough that there is a compelling variety to the program and an abundance of good choices for each time slot, but small enough that you can meet important people in the field and also not feel completely lost.


My main task at the conference was to participate in a panel which I helped put together: "Living with Annihilated Time and Space: New Social Histories of the Transportation Revolution." Graciously chaired by Dan Feller (Tennessee), the panel featured three papers which are working to create a richer history of the transportation revolution than currently exists in the historiography. In What Hath God Wrought, Daniel Walker Howe put communications front and center in the history of the early republic, so the time seems right to shepherd the transportation revolution beyond the realm of economic and business history.


My own paper consisted of material which I've posted to this blog. In my current research, I've been exploring how children learned about railroads. Given the dearth of primary source material written by children, I've been doing that most recently through shorter didactic literature and longer works of fiction. Will Mackintosh (Mary Washington) presented a fascinating paper on the "aesthetic possibilities" of the transportation revolution, looking at how travelers reflected on the aesthetic experience of their travel. Spencer Snow (Illinois) could not attend the meeting, but his paper, read by Dan Feller, challenged the ways in which historians have traditionally looked at travel guidebooks and emphasized how lived experience could contrast with the easily plotted routes in the books. We all received great comments from Christopher Clark (Connecticut), whose work I have long admired, and the audience had a series of relevant questions as well. All the feedback gave me much to consider as I re-assess my work and move forward.


With my principal obligation finished, I was able to spend the remainder of the conference enjoying the panels. I was able to fill the weekend with a nice selection of material, and was particularly struck at the number of panels engaging international themes (even beyond the Atlantic World which was such a hot topic in graduate school). In all, an enjoyable conference and one I'll look forward to returning to again.

Steamboat as metaphor and preparation for the afterlife

In the children's literature I'm reading, transportation often serves its literal purpose: moving characters in the story from one place to another. Even when having transportation in the story lets the characters discuss other things, the trip has the same purpose it would in real life.

In other cases, however, transportation's role is clearly metaphorical. Author Jacob Abbott developed an extended metaphor with a steamboat in his 1832 work Young Christian. Abbott informs the young reader that according to the Bible, a person's time on each is merely a period of probation. He then proceeds to illustrate this with what he calls "familiar examples, drawn from the actual business of life" (307). Abbott selects the steamboat as a metaphor and notes that any steamboat must be "proved" before it can be put into service. He enumerates the things which could possibly go wrong with a ship—such as poor materials or poor construction—and notes that the engineer must carefully inspect every portion of the vast new machine in over to ensure that it is working properly. The engineer in this story takes days, even weeks, to insure that every joint, bearing, valve, and gauge is in proper working order. After the engineer is satisfied with the quality of the work, only then can people climb on board.

For Abbott, the steamboat embodies both power and restraint. he tells his young readers: "And though she has within her bosom a furnace glowing with furious fires, and a reservoir of death—the elements of most dreadful ruin and conflagration—of destruction the most complete, and agony the most unutterable; and though her strength is equal to the united energy of two thousand men, she restrains it all" (310). But the technology was not invoked to scare the reader. Rather, the steamboat served as a metaphor for the readers themselves. By the end of the story, the purpose of the metaphor is clear to the reader. Each of us, Abbott tells us, has within us "susceptibilities and powers, of which you have little present conception, energies, which are hereafter to operate in producing fulness of enjoyment or horrors of suffering, of which you now but little conceive" (311). Just as the engineer had to closely inspect the steamboat before launching it and taking lives into his care, so too should the reader inspect him or herself and change anything which needs fixing. Like a mechanic readying a steamship, American youth were to inspect hand modify their hearts. Abbott admonished his readers: "You are on trial—on probation now. You will enter upon active service in another world" (311). The steamboat—what must have been commonly known to his young readers by the 1830s—served as a lesson in how to prepare oneself for life after death.

Accidents build character

My research is currently focused on children and the transportation revolution. In a previous post, I noted that descriptions of snakeheads might lead historians to assume that antebellum railroads were highly dangerous, whereas examining the actual reports of accidents and some other factors suggest that antebellum Americans saw accidents as rare enough to be an acceptable risk when traveling. Although I wasn't anticipating spending so much time on accidents at this stage of my research, my reading in children's literature has given me some additional food for thought on this topic.

The first portion of Jacob Abbott's novel Aunt Margaret; Or, How John True Kept His Resolutions (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1856) is occupied with the story of how young John True and his little sister, Lucy, take the train from New York City to western Massachusetts to visit their aunt. The decision to let Lucy travel under John's care alone is not made lightly. Indeed, it gives Mr. and Mrs. True an opportunity to reflect on the differences between their own upbringing and that which they are giving their children. Mr. True hopes that the railroad journey will help their children grow up, saying: "I think that the great danger which we have to fear in respect to our children, is, that they will grown up inefficient and helpless, on account of being waited upon and taken care of so much." Mr. True notes that when he and his wife were brought up, "we were thrown in a great measure upon our own resources and responsibility from our earliest years." By contrast, the Trues worried that their own children were being raised under very different circumstances. Mr. True fretted that "under pretense of saving them from getting hurt," children would not "ever acquire[e] any substantial experiences in respect to the laws of life" (pages 14-16).

As you would expect, John is thrilled with the idea of accepting the responsibility for his sister and undertaking the exciting rail journey. Discussing the trip with his mother, John informs her that he plans to pray that he and Lucy would not encounter "an difficulty or danger." To his surprise -- and frankly, to mine when I first read the passage -- Mrs. True responds that "it may be best for you that you should get into some difficulty or danger." What could this possibly mean? Mrs. True elaborated on her reasoning:
"There are a great many ways," replied his mother, "in which good comes out of accidents in traveling. In the first place you gain experience. You are called upon to act in unexpected emergencies; and thus your judgment and discretion are exercised, and you become better qualified to act in extraordinary emergencies afterward."
Thus, the railroad was something of a school which would prepare John in case anything much more dangerous happened later in life. Mrs. True didn't feel that the railroad itself was so dangerous that the children would be unduly at risk, but that it would force the children to find creative solutions to bad situations.

Mrs. True then continued with another example, telling John that it was possible that the engine could run off the track, which would result in "three or four hours" of delay. What might happen? "Then perhaps you would get hungry; and you might lead Lucy to a farm-house not far away, and get something to eat. You would have to consider in such a case a great many things. You would have to ask the conductor, before you went, how much time there would be; and you would have to be very careful not to stay too long. All these things would afford exercise for your powers of reflection, and judgment, and forethought, and so strengthen and improve them." The railroad's risks create opportunities for John to prove his ability to care for Lucy. Rather than praying to be free from accidents, Mrs. True says, "What we ought to pray to God for, chiefly, is a quiet and peaceful mind, to make us calm and submissive to his will, under all circumstances--and then whether things go seemingly right or seemingly wrong we shall almost always be happy" (pages 28-34).

In a recent article in the Journal of the Early Republic, Will Mackintosh has argued that transportation became commodified in the antebellum era. Travel went from something that travelers had to create (getting from town to town as best they could, inquiring about paths along the way) to something they purchased at a ticket booth. Here, Mrs. True wants to make sure that the commodification of travel hasn't dulled John's ability to fend for himself in the world. Accidents were not something to be feared, but an opportunity to prove one's popper attitude in a world where so many things are beyond one's individual control.

Additional reading: Will Mackintosh's " 'Ticketed Through': The Commodification of Travel in the Nineteenth Century" (Journal of the Early Republic 32 [spring 2012]: 61-89) is a much-needed corrective to the traditional view of the transportation revolution as a backdrop for everything else happening in the antebellum era.

How we judge transportation networks

A number of fine books on nineteenth-century railroads have come out in the past decade, and they have been recently joined by Richard White's Railroaded. I read the book soon after it came out and had a variety of different reactions, some which I still hold and others which were modified after listening to him give a wonderful talk at Georgetown University last fall. One of the nice things about this book is that it made me think hard about my own time period, even though White's interest is in the postbellum era.

White argues -- passionately -- that the transcontinental railroad was built too soon; rushed to construction by incompetent financiers before demand would make the railroad viable. White's argument in this respect made me think again about a topic I've been kicking around for a while: the question of how we (as historians) should judge the success or failure of transportation networks.

Many commentators on antebellum American transportation (such as George Rogers Taylor and Irene Neu, in American Railroad Network) argue that the railroad "network," such as it was, was horribly fragmented. It isn't very hard to find evidence for this: different gauges sprang up since the railroads were still in their experimental phase (and different gauges were even sometimes imposed by law out of local protectionist impulse), there was no federal- or state-level network planning, and so on. I wonder, however, if it is appropriate for historians to judge individual modes of transportation when in reality many different modes are used in conjunction with one another. While reading antebellum travel guides last year, I was struck by how they wove together coach, steamboat, and railroad travel (with the first two falling off as the third improved). Thinking about transit today, passengers clearly mix types of transport: if I fly somewhere from DC, I start out by walking to my local Metro stop, then taking the Metro to National airport, flying to my destination, and then taking public transit or a taxi to the hotel -- at least four different types of transportation. (A similar argument applies to modern freight, since intermodal traffic helped resurrect the railroad industry after World War II.)

As a writer, I'm as guilty of historically stovepiping transit modes as anyone else, since my initial focus was on railroads, but I'm increasingly convinced that moving forward it makes more sense to study how different types of transportation worked together. While the Civil War interrupted the railroad expansion of the 1850s (so we will never know exactly how the inter-regional linkages might have developed), perhaps it makes more sense to pay attention how the different types of transportation worked together, rather than simply judging each one a success or failure on its own. With the exception of the automobile (which allows for so much personal freedom in choice of route, timing of trips, etc.), all networks are going to have some limitations. The question is how well they work together to allow the traveler/shipper to get to their chosen destination.

The second item that struck me about White's "too soon" argument is that I am not sure he fully appreciated the impact of the goods carried by the railroad (although he raised a host of other critical issues, such as the environmental impact of the construction). I have long been fascinated by Greg Umbach's work on Mormon consumerism in Utah during this same time period. It can be difficult for me to imagine how isolated Utah truly was during the 1850s, but Umbach notes that prior to the railroad, Utah merchants could make one trip annually East to purchase goods. The railroad's impact was completely transformative to the consumer culture of Utah. When goods were scarce, Mormons viewed goods "through a lens shaped to a large degree by local experience," but after the railroad's arrival Mormons fully participated in the "emerging national bourgeois sensibility expressed in a range of popular literature." Umbach argues that after the railroad's arrival, more family members (besides the household head) participated in purchasing decisions, women rejected a "Mormon" style of dress apart from national fashions, and goods which might have had intensely local meanings were now replaced by "extra-local" meanings. Umbach's work brings us a side of the railroad's development which on its face seems unexceptional (railroads bring goods), but in reality had a complex impact on the communities served by the railroad. White notes that the early transcontinentals did not bring very many goods, but the goods they did bring clearly had a powerful impact on Utah's culture.

Comparing White's and Umbach's claims made me realize I need to pay closer attention to the consumer impact of railroads in my own time period. White's book is a necessary critique of the transcontinentals, given their somewhat mythical status in American history, and it was rewarding to read something which raised a wide variety of issues about railroads.

Additional reading: Greg Umbach published "Learning to Shop in Zion" in the fall 2004 issue of Journal of Social History, but some of the material I've used above is drawn from his 2002 Cornell University dissertation of the same title. For intermodal traffic after World War II, see Richard Saunders, Merging Lines and Main Lines.

Snakeheads on antebellum railroads

While I was researching Railroads in the Old South, I would sometimes come across references to "snakeheads." This is the term given to strap iron rails which would come loose from the sleepers; in the more ghoulish tales, the rails would pierce the bottom of a car and impale some poor unsuspecting passenger. Traveling through the South, Henry Whipple wrote in 1844: "The passengers are amused on this road by running off the track, sending rails up through the bottom of the cars and other amusements of the kind calculated to make one's hair stand on end" (Bishop Whipple's Southern Diary, 1843-1844, page 76). Likewise, in Southern Railroad Man, N.J. Bell reported: "It is said that one of these snakeheads stuck up so high that it ran over the top of a wheel of a coach and through the floor, and killed a lady passenger" (page 7).


"It is said." Not the most satisfying answer. On the one hand, as a historian I was reliant on accounts like Bell's and Whipple's to round out my understanding of travel on southern railroads and balance what I was getting from the corporate reports. On the other hand, the prospect of an iron rail ripping through the bottom of a rail car is terrifying, which made me think: if the danger of such an act was truly that prevalent, why did Americans keep building railroads? And why did they keep riding them? Were they foolhardy? Or is there a better way to understand the danger posed by snakeheads? 


One of the challenges of studying safety on antebellum railroads is the lack of comprehensive statistics. There was no federal agency collecting data in a comprehensive way, and state interest was uneven (Mark Aldrich has done excellent work trying to collect what is available). Railroad companies sometimes self-reported accidents in their annual reports, but obviously they had an incentive not to make a fuss over this; and reports usually included some sort of statement that the passenger was rash to jump off a train while it was still moving, or an employee was intoxicated, etc.

Nevertheless, there may be a more satisfactory way to think about snakeheads, even if we don't have good statistics from the period. I didn't make much use of electronic newspaper collections when I was researching my first book, in part because a keyword search for "railroad" is pretty useless (it returns so much material). But to dig a bit deeper in this question—the question of how prevalent and dangerous snakeheads actually were—I decided to look at the newspaper accounts in Readex's Archive of Americana and do some proximity searching to narrow down the results. Although many of the hits were a humbling reminder that OCR isn't perfect (bringing up "called" for "rail" and "make" for "snake"), others proved to be of greater value.

The first genuine mention was a newspaper article in the Newport Rhode Island Republican of April 7, 1841, reporting an accident near Bristol, PA:
As the train of cars were going from New York towards Philadelphia, near Bristol, one of the wheels struck the end of an iron rail, which was loose, and erected in the manner generally called a snake's head.—The bar passed through the bottom of the car, and between the legs of a passenger, (Mr. Yates, of Albany) tearing his cloak in pieces, grazing his ear, and thence passed out the top of the car. An inch difference in his position on the seat, and he must have been killed.
On June 22 the same year, the Boston Daily Atlas reported a similar accident in New Jersey, but retracted the story on July 1 when the president of the railroad wrote that the injury to the passenger was injured by falling on a "fragment of the seat," not from a rail springing through the floor. In addition to poor Mr. Yates above, I located 17 additional descriptions of snakeheads in newspapers during the antebellum era. Any injuries usually stemmed from passengers being shook up from the jolt as the train left the tracks rather than being directly injured by the rail, but some of the injuries were frightening nonetheless. In 1845, John F. Wallis of the Virginia legislature was injured on the Winchester and Potomac Railroad. According to the Baltimore Sun on July 21:
It lifted Mr. W. completely off his seat, coursing up the surface of his leg and abdomen, lacerating him in several places and injuring his hand severely.
The New London, Connecticut, Morning News gave a more vivid (and different) description of the same accident to "Mr. Wall":
One of the bars of iron becoming loosened from the rails, it shot up through the car at the seat where Mr. Wall was sitting, severely lacerating the back part of the hand, cutting his breast and pinning him up to the top of the car.
The only fatality mentioned happened to a "young man named Staats" killed on a train in New Jersey on the way to New York City (as reported by the Baltimore Sun on August 22, 1843):
The bar entered under the chin of this young man, and came out at the back of his head. He was instantly killed, but no other person injured. The cars went back to Boundbrook, left the body, and then after an hour's delay, started for the city.
(Two other accidents I located involved fatalities, but none of those deaths were attributed to the rail as it was with Staats.)

With descriptions this gruesome, it is easy to see why people would have been worried about this type of accident. And clearly they did happen. But given the eagerness of newspapers to report them, one would expect far more than 17 reports over a 30-year period if they were truly that prevalent. I'm not saying that these are the only 17 occurrences; different newspaper databases may yield different results, and not every occurrence may have been particularly newsworthy, particularly if no injury resulted.

Yet the vagueness of reports at the time (such as Whipple's and Bell's, above), and the apparent difficulty of finding them in newspapers suggests that snakeheads which resulted in serious, fatal injury may not have been that common. Therefore, although the risk was present, most railroad passengers assumed (reasonably) that encountering one would be rare, and that if they did encounter one the result would more likely be jostling in the car as opposed to dangling from the top of an iron bar. We don't know how many passengers who witnessed Staats's death declined to get back on the train to New York, but the train went on nonetheless.

I think this notion of acceptable risk is interesting because we make similar judgments ourselves. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 33,808 people died in car crashes in 2009. That's certainly a large number, but I'm betting that few people who read that number will resolve to never go on the highway again. Those deaths are spread out over billions and billions of passenger miles traveled over the course of the year. As a result, each individual passenger can reasonably feel safe, even if there is risk in traveling by car.

Additionally, antebellum Americans seemed to recognize that the fault of the snakehead rested with flimsier flat rail construction (as opposed to heavier rail designs adopted as time went on). Reporting on a snakehead in 1846, the Newport (RI) Mercury called it "one of those accidents consequent on railroads furnished with the flat rail." Four years later, the Trenton (NJ) State Gazette referred to "a snake head (flat rail)." And, just a few decades after railroads were introduced in the United States, the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1861 could refer back to "the days of flat-bar railroads" which were "a terror to all travelers."

As I've suggested, the "terror" is one that passengers were willing to accept. That such accidents sounded terrifying is doubtless. But the paucity of descriptions from the time helps balance out material from commentators such as Whipple and Bell. Snakeheads surely shook up many passengers in the antebellum era, but few would meet the unfortunate end that Staats did.

Additional reading: Robert Shaw's A History of Railroad Accidents (1978) argues against the prevalence of the snakeheads. Mark Aldrich's comprehensive Death Rode the Rails (2006) also notes that the 1830s and 1840s were reasonably free of major, fatal accidents. He has also done the best job of squeezing statistical analysis out of antebellum records.