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Closely Watched Trains

Of all the great modern innovations, the railroad may well be the one to which historians have accorded the most dramatic and far-reaching influence. No sooner had the first passenger railroads begun operations in England and the United States, around 1830, than the public was seized by what was called, even then, “railroad mania.” For ten or fifteen years the press kept up the excitement with stories about every imaginable aspect of the new machine, and practitioners of the popular arts contributed songs and pictures, poems and fictions, to the hubbub. The prevailing tone was enthusiastic, not to say celebratory, and the hearts of speculators in land and mines and railroads were made glad.

The new steam machine was as great a source of astonishment then as the computer is today. It could pull more weight faster than people had thought possible; it was mechanically and visually arresting; and it almost immediately began to change prevailing conceptions of time, space, and history. The railroad evoked a widely shared sense that an almost magical enhancement of human power was about to take place.

The more historians have learned about the changes caused by the railroad, the less manic, the more reasonable or at least understandable, that initial mania has come to seem. They remind us that the steam-powered locomotive was the first important innovation in overland transportation since before the time of Julius Caesar, and many economic historians have depicted the railroad as one of the chief pivots on which the industrial revolution turned. Before large-scale production could be profitable, farmers and manufacturers had to gain access to much larger markets. Earlier the new canals and steamboats had begun to enlarge the geographical scope of domestic markets, but it was the railroad that made it feasible to ship goods long distances over land.

Then, too, the unprecedented scale of railroading demanded an entirely new kind of business organization. It required precise scheduling, a foolproof network of communications, and many workers with special skills on duty all along the line twenty-four hours a day: it was more like a military organization than the old-style family-owned, family-run firm. As Alfred Chandler has shown, railroading, more than any other industry, called forth the new kind of large, impersonal, hierarchical firm run by specially trained professional managers.1 No technology did more to hasten the rationalization and bureaucratization of business, or the overall transition to a highly centralized form of corporate capitalism.

To the cultural historian, however, the railroad owed much of its impact to its unique symbolic properties. By the 1830s there was a widespread awareness that social change was rapidly accelerating, but the change did not yet have a generally accepted name, much less an explanation. Most of the words and catch phrases we now use to designate the great transition to modernity—industrial revolution, industrialization, the rise of industrial capitalism, urbanization, rationalization, mechanization, modernization, etc.—either had not yet been coined or had not yet won currency.2 To read widely in American public discourse of that critical period is to discover an enormous conceptual void and a yearning to fill it—to find some way, if not to explain, at least to represent what was happening. And that is exactly what the image of the railroad provided. The “iron horse” embodied virtually all of the prominent sensuous attributes of the machine technology—iron, fire, steam, smoke, noise. Then, too, the railroad as a system incorporated most of the essential features of the emerging industrial order: the substitution of metal for wood construction; mechanized motive power; vastly enlarged geographical scale; speed, rationality, impersonality, and a spirit of efficiency that included an unprecedented emphasis on precise timing. As one historian put it, the railroad was “the industrial revolution incarnate.”

In the United States the significance of the railroad was heightened by the fact that its appearance coincided with the building of a new society, and with the conclusive phase in the European occupation of the continent. The American railroad was different from the European because, among other things, the terrain was different. In Europe the tracks usually were laid alongside already existing, often ancient, Roman roadways; but in many parts of the United States the land first had to be cleared and leveled.3 Between 1830 and 1860 the line of permanent white settlements moved further west than it had moved in the previous two centuries. The railroad was perceived as another implement for penetrating the wilderness, driving out the Native Americans, and taking dominion over the vast trans-Mississippi West. To do so was to fulfill the famous injunction of Genesis, and countless sermons and speeches took note of the fact that the new invention had arrived on the scene at the providential moment when the white settlers were poised for their final push to the Pacific.

Popular Currier and Ives prints of trains hurtling across rivers, mountains, and plains caught the exhilarating mood, expressing the quasi-religious ideology whose slogans were “Manifest Destiny,” “the conquest of nature,” or, in a word, progress. All of this bears out the cultural historians’ claim that the enormous impact of the railroad lay not only in its technological and economic efficacy, but in its meaning. The image of the railroad in the landscape was one of the more vivid embodiments of the American ideal of material progress that emerged in the nineteenth century, along with urban industrial society.

John Stilgoe is interested in the ways that the railroad has impinged on American life, but he is not a historian, and the approach he takes in Metropolitan Corridor is refreshingly different. Instead of looking once again at the period of the railroad’s inception, he looks at its glamorous heyday, the half-century (1880–1930) between the effective completion of the national rail system and the beginning of its decline. Those were the years when the railroad still was the way to go. During most of them, indeed, it was the only way to go any distance. The monumental city terminals and handsome small-town depots proclaimed that this was a solid, well-established institution, comparable, in respectability, solvency, and durability, with the bank and the post office. What chiefly interests Professor Stilgoe, who teaches visual and environmental studies at Harvard, is the wholly new “built environment” that developed along the railroad rights of way in the late nineteenth century. No one has really looked at that peculiar strip before, and the result is an original, engaging, instructive, and wonderfully evocative book, marred by a misguided effort to super-impose another, more conventional and academic, subject upon it.

In the preface, Stilgoe raises the question: Did “the romantic-era distrust of the railroad” endure in the decades after 1880? His answer is an emphatic no. But the argument he marshals in its support is unconvincing. For one thing, his question rests on a false premise. What he calls “romantic-era distrust” was the reaction of a small, articulate, but eccentric minority of writers, artists, and intellectuals who distrusted the railroad not so much for what it was as for what it signified. Writers like Thoreau and Hawthorne were capable of appreciating, even admiring, an improved means of moving things and people from one place to another. What would it mean anyway to “distrust” something so manifestly useful? In the familiar Walden episode Thoreau insists that there is something noble and heroic about the iron horse and its riders. Such an invention might be invaluable, in itself an unimpeachable improvement, and yet in the end turn out to be nothing better than, as he acidly puts it elsewhere, an “improved means to an unimproved end.”

Hawthorne makes essentially the same point in his sharp-edged satire on technocratic progressivism, “The Celestial Railroad.” What these writers and others were concerned about was not the new machinery as such, but the larger pattern of “progress,” which is to say the new kind of economy, social order, and culture that it prefigured. To imply that their critical attitude was typical of the period, as Stilgoe does, is wrong. On the contrary the alleged “distrust” of the intellectuals was in large measure a reaction against prevailing attitudes, against the public’s excessive trust, against the railroad mania and the shallow technocratic idea of progress behind it.

To suggest that such highbrow skepticism did not endure beyond the 1880s also is misleading. To be sure, Stilgoe has discovered a number of hitherto unknown illustrators, photographers, painters, journalists, architects, engineers, novelists, and short story writers who were devotees of railroads and railroading. Much of their work is fascinating, and provides invaluable documentation of the past. It enables us to appreciate, as never before, the central part played by the railroad in shaping the culture of modern industrial society. For this contribution Stilgoe deserves high praise. But he makes little effort to demonstrate that much of this material is of enduring aesthetic value. He repeatedly alludes to a new “industrial [or spatial, or structural, or trade journal, or engineering] aesthetic,” but all that this murky program amounts to is the substitution of an unornamented, efficient functionalism for traditional notions of beauty. Most of the literary work Stilgoe uncovers appears to be third-rate. (He is not a particularly skillful reader of imaginative literature: you can’t scoop a passage about the railroad from a complex novel, exhibit it in isolation, and reveal anything reliable about the writer’s views.)

As for the impressive volume of this newly unearthed material, it isn’t clear what it proves other than the wellknown fact that the popular culture greatly expanded at the time. It does show that a great many Americans were enthralled by the railroad, but hardly more so than in the early days of railroad mania. In any case volume is beside the point if the point is that the earlier distrust by the intellectuals endured, and, oddly, much of Stilgoe’s evidence indicates that it did. When he glances at the treatment of railroads (and of industrialism generally) by writers like Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, what comes through, even when Stilgoe doesn’t say so, is remarkably like Thoreau’s feeling of contrariety and ambivalence. (Had he looked at the work of Frank Norris, Eugene O’Neill, or Henry Adams the case would have been much stronger.) The point is that the sharp contrast between the mass of enthusiasts and the eccentric intellectuals never disappeared—still hasn’t—and if Stilgoe was accurate when he wrote the prefatory description of Metropolitan Corridor as a book about changing attitudes towards the railroad, it would have to be accounted a failure.

But fortunately he was wrong: the heart of the book is the idea of the railroad “corridor” as an “unprecedented arrangement of space and structure.” The idea is so rich and so original that one can read the book with pleasure without being distracted by its argument. The corridor is a subject ideally suited to Professor Stilgoe’s gifts. He has a sure feeling for spatial forms and an ability to create, from astonishingly diverse sources, the look, feel, and smell of what must have seemed at the time a strange futuristic environment. The photographs are at least as important as the text and cover every conceivable aspect of railroading—the gaudy Pullman car amenities, the hoboes and shantytowns, the palatial neoclassic terminals and little rustic depots, the powerhouses and stack signs and water tanks. There are excerpts from Lionel model train catalogs, time-tables, engineering and architectural plans, magazine covers, postcards, and they all enhance the power of a simple idea: that the trackside corridor was the bloodstream of a radically new style of industrial metropolitanism; it carried within it all of the essential ingredients of modernity, as if the entire circulatory system of a complex organism somehow had been implanted in a simpler, more primitive species.

Every metropolitan corridor announced novelty. In rural areas, the corridor flaunted agricultural time-keeping; all night, when farm families slept, trains rolled through the electrically lighted darkness. Almost everywhere, except where the latest electric locomotives had replaced steam-driven engines, the corridor smelled not of traditional wood smoke, but of coal smoke. Locomotives, factories, and generating stations burned the modern fuel that suburbanites were only beginning to accept in 1880 but accepted without question by 1925. Corridor structures displayed such new building materials as yellow firebrick, poured concrete, and steel lattice girders, heralding the virtual end of wood-frame building. More than urban areas, the corridor spoke of the power of the new, expert builder, the engineer, the architect, the landscape architect. Democracy ruled little building in the corridor; instead, engineers speaking for private clients directed the siting of factories, the façades of depots, and the planting of station gardens. Unlike cities, which continued to represent bygone ages of traditional building and unplanned development, the corridor announced modernity, planning, and systems engineering.

When passengers climbed aboard the luxury trains that raced along the corridor—the Oriental Limited, the Crescent Limited, the Orange Blossom Special, the Black Diamond, the Broadway Limited, the Twentieth Century Limited—they entered a fantasy world of comfort and elegance. To entice the rich the fast long-distance trains carried barbers, manicurists, ladies’ maids, stenographers; dining cars paneled in imported English oak offered the cuisine native to each line’s region: grouse and salmon on the Northwest Pacific, antelope steak on the Union Pacific, and terrapin stew on the Baltimore and Ohio. As the competition between the roads became more intense, new, more conspicuously wasteful, creature comforts and conveniences were provided: specially cooled air in summer, showers, bathtubs, stock market reports, radios, gymnasium equipment—the high point probably was reached in 1933 when a swimming pool was installed on a Sea-board Air Line deluxe train.

But those were only commercial trains. For the truly rich George Pullman’s company (originally called the “Pullman Palace Car Company”) built custom-made private cars equipped with such optional items as solid silver hatracks, Carrara marble washbasins, and stained glass windows. (One magnate sent his private car to New Haven each November so that his undergraduate sons could eat Thanksgiving dinner in an appropriate setting.) Stilgoe recaptures the distinctive excitement of riding those fast trains, the unreality of inhabiting that self-contained world in motion, eating and sleeping in provocatively close quarters with strangers, “all caught upon the wing,” in Thomas Wolfe’s words, “and held for a moment in the peculiar intimacy of this Pullman car which has become their common home for a night.” And for those outside, watching from the banks of the corridor, the trains were like miniature cities “flashing across farms and forests, attracting the wondering admiration of children and adults who recognized speed, efficiency, and urban glamor.”

In small towns the depot replaced the general store as the place to hang out; to hear the latest news from the telegrapher, the disembarking passengers, and the trainmen; to pick up vibrations emanating from New York or Chicago as the Twentieth Century roared by. A recurrent theme of Metropolitan Corridor is how the railroads succeeded in draining the vitality from small-town rural America.

The corridor was the scene of the failures as well as the achievements of industrial capitalism—of its squalor and carelessness as well as its opulence and efficiency. Even in the heyday of the railroad the crossings were the location of wholesale death and destruction. During the first twenty years of this century more than two hundred thousand people were killed in crossing accidents alone. And for all the efforts at beautification, the elaborate plantings along the rights of way, and the gardens encircling suburban depots, in many cities the corridor quickly deteriorated into a weedy, grimy dumping ground. It was the urban space for which no one took responsibility—the site of canals filled with black, rancid water, and of shantytowns populated by derelicts and hoboes.

Once the competition of the automobile and the airplane began to make itself felt, the American passenger railroads were allowed to sink into a scandalous state of disrepair and inefficiency. Toward the end of Metropolitan Corridor, an elegiac not creeps into Stilgoe’s account. In the United States, unlike the other industrial nations, no effort was made to sustain a decent level of passenger train service. By the end of the book, Stilgoe evinces more than a little “romantic-era distrust” of America’s heedless, insatiable passion for the newest, most profitable technologies. For all his design-school Whiggishness, his eagerness not to seem retrograde in his attitude, and his upbeat talk about the charms of the “industrial aesthetic,” one cannot help feeling that Professor Stilgoe’s affections are divided. I think the true epigraph for Metropolitan Corridor was written by Henry James when, having returned to the United States after a long stay in Europe, he was impressed by “the great straddling, bellowing railway, the high, heavy, dominant American train that so reverses the relation of the parties concerned, suggesting somehow that the country exists for the ‘cars’ which overhang it like a conquering army, and not the cars for the country.”

  1. 1

    The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977).

  2. 2

    A “cultural lag” between events and their naming or conceptualization is of course not unusual, and indeed the beginnings of most great historical processes are unnoticed or nameless. But it is arguable, following a line of analysis that leads from Adam Smith’s concept of the “invisible hand” to Karl Marx and Louis Althusser, that there was, and presumably still is, something uniquely invisible about the deepest inner workings of the modern capitalist system.

  3. 3

    For this and other insights, I am indebted to Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: Trains and Travel in the Nineteenth Century (Urizen Books, 1980).

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