9. If You Build It, They Will Come
November 8, 2014
Echoing Ray Kinsella's hopes in Field of Dreams, the railroad barons guided an industry based on fantastical, unrealistic visions of land usage. Unlike Kinsella, however, who churned up his cornfield to realize his dream, the many Collis P. Huntingtons, James J. Hills, Tom Scotts and Jay Cookes metaphorically dug their fields under after they built their railroads.
White's scope in Railroaded seems all-encompassing. He ties virtually every post-1865 American (and Canadian and Mexican) occurrence -- from political, economic and social to military and philosophical -- to the effects of railroad-building. The long-dead, egotistical barons would undoubtedly preen at Whites' assessment of their ultimate power. At the same time, they would reinvent his well-documented criticisms of their lives and activities to their own advantage.
White contends that "[W]hatever the railroads did -- rob, create, organize -- they supposedly did ruthlessly and effectively" because "if failure could be lucrative, then ignorance, incompetence, and disorganization were not incompatible"(233, 232). Given the breadth of railroad construction after the Civil War, it is impossible to deny the builders' influence -- often negative -- on the western United States. Yet White suggests that railroad-building was a ploy, a moneymaking byproduct for the garnering of untold wealth for mediocre, reckless entrepreneurs. This infers that if, for instance, the planting of wheat or the skinning of buffalo had had the same lure of maximum financial success, the barons would just as eagerly have embraced those instead.
This supposition gives rise to "what if's." What if other enterprises had swayed the railroaders away from the indiscriminate building of thousands of miles of needless railways too soon? Would the West still have been "won" without them? Pioneers had been traveling the Santa Fe and Oregon Trails since the early 1800s, settling western lands years before the advent of the railroads. The Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Great Northern et.al. surely made the trip more convenient and expansive, but would not such dedicated trailblazers have continued on their own, at a more manageable pace for region building? Would their homesteading choices have been any more or any less astute and well-placed than those of the railroad tycoons? Harkening back to their western spirit of individualism, upon which historians from Frederick Jackson Turner to Susan Lee Johnson to White himself comment, is it possible that White bestows the railroad magnets with excessive and undue credit/discredit for opening the West?
The intricacies of the financial dealings and economic machinations in Railroaded were sticky to follow, despite White's eloquent explanations. However, his cast of antagonistic leading characters leaves little doubt that, regardless of their assertions of patriotism and the national interest, the railroad barons' definitive goal was to line their own pockets.
I admit that by page 534, Railroaded left me feeling a bit dejected. I will never look at railroad tracks quite as I did before. They were not fields of dreams.