Monday, December 14, 2015

Reconsidering the Transcontinental Railroad

I love, love, love historians who make you reconsider things you thought were unquestionably true.

Today on MPR, Richard White of Stanford University told me why the transcontinental railroad wasn't such a good idea, at least at the time it happened in the U.S. and in the way it was paid for. The talk is based on his book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. Sounds like it's definitely worth a read.

White points out that the way we all learned about the accomplishment of building the railroad emphasizes the technical achievement, such as this moment in Promontory Point, Utah, where the "golden spike" was driven to join the two railroads together. This story omits the fact that the railroad wasn't needed at the time and therefore never had enough business to sustain it, was heavily subsidized, and went bankrupt multiple times.

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