Please help me learn new things – The history of railroads in the US

This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about twelve new things this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month six. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)

Sorry this one is a few days late. I was travelling. Also, this month turned out to be a little bit of a dud.

When I went looking to learn about the history of railroads in the US, I think in my mind I was looking for more of a technical discussion. I wanted to know how you make a cross-country railroad with nineteenth-century technology. I wanted to know how you made a pass through the mountains, how you make the railroads meet, how you keep it all together.

Instead, most of the books I read focused on the political and social processes behind the railroads. How did the government (and it’s always Lincoln, isn’t it?) get things going. How did private industry hold things together? How was it financed? How did the personalities clash?

I’m sure that would be fascinating to some people. Maybe a lot of people. But it wasn’t to me. That said, the books were good! Just not enticing when I had other books to read for pleasure (I polished off the Powder Mage trilogy this month) as well as a huge stack of work to do before I travelled.*

First up, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built  Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869. Totally enjoyable. Almost nothing with respect to technical details. However, he did say one thing which stuck with me throughout the month. Before the railroads, people travelled using the same technology that they had during the days of Julius Caesar. Almost no advances had been made in more than 2000 years. To get from point A to point B over land, you pretty much walked or rode a horse.

That’s somewhat humbling.

Travelling from the East Coast to the West Coast was either an unbelievably long (and dangerous) trek across land, or an even longer and more dangerous boat ride (likely with a land crossing in Central America). There were no good choices. And then:

Before the Mexican War, during the Gold Rush that started in 1848, through the 1850s, and until after the Civil War ended in 1865, it took a person months and might cost more than $1,000 to go from New York to San Francisco.

But less than a week after the pounding of the Golden Spike, a man or woman could go from New York to San Francisco in seven days. That included stops. So fast, they used to say, “that you don’t even have time to take a bath.” And the cost to go from New York to San Francisco, as listed in the summer of 1869, was $150 for first class, $70 for emigrant. By June 1870, that was down to $136 for first class, $110 for second class, and $65 for third, or emigrant, class. First class meant a Pullman sleeping car. Emigrants sat on a bench.

It’s hard to overstate how amazing this must have seemed. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.

The second book I read was Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. It was also a decent read, but very, very similar to Ambrose’s book, such that I didn’t get much more out of it.

The third book I read was about the Panama Canal, not railroads. But the theme was similar. David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914. This, too, was more intrigue than science, but I was more interested than with the railroads. Maybe it was because there was international politics. Maybe it was because they talked a bit more about the engineering, and how choices were made for the types and layout of the canal. Regardless – I was a little more interested.

Plus, McCullough did spend a chapter or so on the wonder of the canal in action. It’s pretty impressive.

Next up is Oceanography – bring on some science!

tl;dr: Read any of these books if you’re interested in how these travel miracles were made to happen. But don’t expect technical details


*Also, I saw Hamilton last week, and it was even better than I’d hoped it would be.

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