The Mad, Bad Business of Railroad Tycoons

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A more discouraging word in American English than “infrastructure” would be hard to find. And yet it’s one not seldom but often heard; to be home on the range, we have to get from the range to home, and using “infrastructure” of some sort, whether steel rails or asphalt road, is how we do that. But calling it “infrastructure” doesn’t make it sound the way we want it to sound. The word, of military origin, is meant to encompass all the conveyances that enable us to go and do our work, yet it somehow reduces projects of great audacity and scale—the Erie Canal, the transcontinental railroad, the great tunnels that run beneath the Hudson—to matters of thrifty, dull foresight. Although we’ve coined wonderful words in politics (“spin doctor,” “boycott,” and “politically correct” are by now universals, offered as readily in Danish or in French as in English), we have a surprisingly pallid vocabulary for engineering. David McCullough’s books on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Panama Canal, a generation ago, were among the last popular works about the heroism of romantic engineering, and neither, tellingly, ever once used the I-word.

But at a moment when arguing about infrastructure is the rage, it may be useful to have a reminder that there was a time when the word was nonexistent but the thing it refers to was burgeoning. Americans, it seems, were once good at building big things that changed lives. And right on cue comes a series of books about the building of the American railroads. These histories impart not the expected moral that we once were good at something that now flummoxes us—yes, it took New York longer to build three stops for the Second Avenue subway than it did for the nineteenth-century railroad barons to get from Chicago to Los Angeles, with silver mines found and opera houses hatched along the way, like improbable vulture eggs—but, rather, that it’s hard to say what exactly it was that we were good at. Is the story of the great American railways about the application of will and energy? The brutal exploitation of (often) Chinese labor to build on (often) Native land? Was finance capitalism responsible for putting big sums of money in the hands of people with big things to build (and then threatening to snatch back the things once built)? Or were these projects just easier to build in a less cluttered country with less watchfully democratic cities?

John Sedgwick’s new book bears the slightly unfortunate title “From the River to the Sea” (Avid Reader), a phrase that, what with the language of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, may have a different valence than intended. The book’s subtitle does the real work: “The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West.” Sedgwick, the author of “Blood Moon” (2018), a novelistic account of the rifts among the Cherokee before and after the Trail of Tears, has produced a book perfectly suited, in its manageable length and rich incidental detail, for the return of mass air and rail travel. Fittingly, one of the things he argues is that the idea of reading while travelling was a gift of the railroad. Carriages shook too much to read on.

The book has so many outlandish characters—tycoons who fall in love with women named Queenie and Baby Doe; murder among the Wall Street predators—that it seems to demand a big-screen treatment, something like a Cinerama “How the West Was Won,” complete with a Robert Morley cameo as Oscar Wilde. But that would be putting an Alfred Newman score to a Bertolt Brecht screenplay. Beneath its adventurous surface, Sedgwick’s account is of hair-raising, ethics-free capitalism. Basically, his tale is about the competition between two men to get their railroads from one side of the continent to the other, following a southwestern route parallel to an earlier railroad, completed in the decade after the Civil War, that stretched from Sacramento to Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Work on that line, the first transcontinental railroad, began during the war and, as Sedgwick makes clear, was largely a government project, from start to finish. Throughout American history, there has never been a true free-market solution to advancing communication or conveyance technology. In 1862, President Lincoln, a onetime “railroad lawyer,” as modern biographers remind us, had authorized Congress to fund the first transnational railroad. (The Civil War had been in effect a railroad war: Grant and Sherman’s ability to move men efficiently to battle depended on their access to more trains and faster rails than Lee could ever dream of.) Lincoln had envisioned a transcontinental railway since his early days in Illinois, and his plan was orderly. The Union Pacific, specially created by the government, would build tracks from east to west, and the Central Pacific from west to east. This route, in a way not unfamiliar to skeptics of government planning, took an awkward path, bypassing big towns and weather-friendly terrain; the terminal points, Sacramento and Council Bluffs, as improbable then as now, were chosen for political as well as business reasons.

The second transcontinental-railroad project ignited in the eighteen-seventies and continued into the next decade, making it very much a product of the Gilded Age. It would allow two rival railway companies to seek out a southern route past the Rockies, with one eventually ending in the little settlement of Los Angeles. Astonishingly, it really was a flat-out competition between two railroad companies—the Denver & Rio Grande on one side and the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe on the other. Each sent thousands of engineers, workmen, and, occasionally, gunslingers to get a few days’ lead over the other side, with planning largely left unplanned. It was a race to be first, jungle engineering—and jungle capitalism—at its worst, or its finest. “To a railroad man, the greatest terror of all was another train coming into territory he’d thought was his alone,” Sedgwick writes. It sounds like no way to build, or run, a railroad, but that’s the way it happened.

The two principals in Sedgwick’s account are General William Palmer, who owned, or seemed to own, the Rio Grande, and William Strong, the president of the Santa Fe railway. The real money and power, though, were back East in New York and Boston; as Palmer and Strong built their tracks and intruded on each other’s territory, the real strings were being pulled on Wall Street. Not that Palmer and Strong were in any sense negligible. Palmer was a genuine hero of the Civil War, a Quaker general who had bravely gone on a behind-enemy-lines mission and narrowly escaped being hanged by the Confederacy; Strong was one of those surprisingly effective men who are distinguished by their single-mindedness. “His answer to every business question was to lay down track, and then to lay on more,” Sedgwick tells us.

Along the way, the two men’s tale intersects with most of the big forces and trends of the period. The silver-and-gold-currency controversy, the Bitcoin debate of its day, turns out to be central to the story, as, of course, does the larger question of the imperial conquest of the West. Sedgwick is particularly good on the perceptual and psychological transformations that the railroads wrought. He has revelatory pages on the way that the speed of trains altered the understanding of American space, and on the way that the view from trains—the near distance racing past, the farther distance proceeding in spacious slowness—became a poetic obsession. Equally revelatory is his discussion of the relation between the railroads’ need for straight tracks and the geometrical design of the settlements built near, and shaped by, the tracks. The great Frederick Law Olmsted was once asked by one of the railroad companies to design a plan for Tacoma, Washington, only to have it rejected as unduly curvilinear, lacking business-friendly corner lots.

Yet Sedgwick’s story is hard to follow in places, simply because it gets so crazily complicated. Court orders follow showy confrontations follow more court orders follow Wall Street schemes. At one point, Palmer is forced to hand over his railroad to Strong, but manages to regain it shortly afterward as part of a fantastically intricate stock manipulation crafted by the legendary “spider of Wall Street,” the small, malignant Jay Gould.

Throughout the book, one simple lesson emerges: building big is hard because something unexpected always happens that extends the time it takes to get the big thing built. Some of the impediments that Sedgwick describes were matters of engineering. Like the telephone, which ultimately required cable to be strung from every house in America to every other house in America, trains are inherently implausible things. A hugely powerful and dangerous steam engine is attached to fixed cars, which are linked together and pulled along like a toy. A train can run only on fixed rails, which have to be nailed down ahead of it for every inch of its transit. The idea is so bizarre that it came to seem natural. It is hard for us to credit the ingenuity and mechanical doggedness that attended the construction of the railroad over gulch and desert canyon. At one especially perilous spot on the border between Colorado and New Mexico, the Raton Pass, Palmer’s engineers employed a “shoo fly” method of switchbacks—zigzagging the track over a steep mountainside.

An oddity that fills Sedgwick’s book is Americans’ enormous deference toward the legal system, alongside their readiness to resort to violence to defy that system. Again and again, the contestants in the story go to court, meekly accept a possibly rigged verdict, and then go right back into armed confrontation. Then they go back to court. At one point, Palmer appealed to Judge Moses Hallett, who, as Sedgwick writes, thought he had “the perfect Solomonic solution” to a dispute between the tycoons: “Where there wasn’t room for two separate lines of track, Hallett compelled them to add a third.” Dickens, in his American novel, “Martin Chuzzlewit,” saw this plainly—that ours was at once a wildly litigious and a uniquely violent society. Palmer and Strong could have divided and conquered the West together, but societies rooted in conflict will turn with equal enthusiasm to courts and to revolvers. (This is why professional wrestling is the most American of sports: an obvious pin gets rewarded, and when it doesn’t you hit someone over the head with a chair.)

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