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.