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.

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.

D.K. Minor in the digital age

In March 1910, the University of Illinois library received a bound set of the first sixty volumes of the American Railroad Journal from A. H. Grant of Elizabeth, New Jersey. Grant's stationery proclaims him to have been a "Dealer in Technical Periodicals Only" ("Services Prompt - Prices Reasonable - Terms Cash"). Grant closed his letter asking that the library make the "earliest possible remittance, as I had to pay cash, not an easy matter at this time of year."

One hundred years later, the university partnered with the Internet Archive to make these same bound volumes available over the internet. I found the volumes (including Grant's letter, scanned in the the first volume) through HathiTrust, a staggering collection of online materials from a consortium of research libraries. HathiTrust takes the time and effort to get the metadata correct, meaning that searches can be executed with Library of Congress subject headings and a host of other methods.

D. K. Minor began publishing the American Railroad Journal in January 1832. At the time, railroads powered by steam were hardly a sure bet. Yet Minor believed that the time was right for a journal dedicated to internal improvements. He made his goal clear in the very first issue, stating that he wanted to "diffuse a more general knowledge of this important mode of internal communication, which, at this time, appears to engage the attention of almost every section of the country." The American Railroad Journal was an exceptionally important resource for me when writing Railroads in the Old South, since I could mine its pages for evidence that southern railroad developments were engaged in a broader, national conversation about internal improvement. Minor's journal existed during the nullification controversy and the run-up to the Civil War, allowing me to judge how railroad promoters balanced sectional politics with their goals of a national system of internal improvements.

At the time of its publication, Minor's journal was read all over the country, as the lists of subscribers printed in the journal attested. Now that the journal is available on the internet, his goal of "diffus[ing]" knowledge about railroads is even easier to accomplish. While I don't regret the time I spent hunkered over the microfilm version of the journal when I was researching my first book, I am certainly glad to see that this critical source for U.S. railroad history available online.

Additional reading: Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, volume 2, 1850-1865 (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1938), pages 297-300 covers the history of the journal. See also "One Hundred Years with the Railroads," Railway Mechanical Engineer 105 (October 1932): 385-392, 401.

"Get Off the Track!": Sheet music and railroads

While doing research at the American Antiquarian Society, I was struck at the large amount of sheet music which included railroads as a theme: "Locomotive Polka," "Railroad March for the Fourth of July," "Railroad Quick Step," and so on. Some of this sheet music included handsome illustrations of trains on the cover. In the remarkable case of the "Alsacian Railroad Gallops" by J. Guignard (1845), the railroad is even incorporated into the bars of music:


The beginning of the piece is marked "Moderato - The Train is in Motion," and by the third stave the marking has changed to "Allegro - Look Out for the Locomotive!" The chromatic run at the bottom of page is marked to mimic the "smoke and hissing of the locomotive." You can find a larger image here. It is posted online courtesy of the Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music, The Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University.

Another example which caught my eye is "Get Off the Track!" published in 1844 and written for the Hutchinson Family Singers, known for their abolitionist songs. "Get Off the Track!" is no exception:


There is a lot happening in this image (larger version here; it is posted online courtesy of the Library of Congress). Front and center, a carriage marked "Immediate Emancipation" is pulled along by an engine marked "Liberator," a reference to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper. In the background, the trains of Martin Van Buren and Henry Clay are crashing into ruin. The lyrics of the song make the political message even clearer, referring to Clay explicitly and van Buren by his nickname (underlining is in the original): "Rail Roads to Emancipation / Cannot rest on Clay foundation / And the tracks of 'The Magician' / Are but Rail Roads to perdition."

Railroads here form an apt metaphor for the message the Hutchinsons were trying to get across: railroads move swiftly and directly to their destination, a perfect image for the goal of immediate emancipation.

Other examples of railroads and sheet music abound (many more at the Johns Hopkins site linked above), but these two strike me as some of the most compelling: In the Alsacian case for the ingenuity of the design and in the abolitionist case for recruiting technology as a metaphor for political action.

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.