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.