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Railroads and the Character of America, l820-1887

by James A. Ward, Professor of History at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

University of Tennessee Press, 1986

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Parts of this book were first published in the Business History Review and in Railroad History. As the title shows, Ward has taken on the challenge of trying to pin down some aspects of the character of America, through myths, metaphors, images ... and the tactics of promoters, the components of their campaigns, and the angles that the press latched onto. It's very entertaining history, but Ward isn't gathering anecdotes here; he's examining the language of promotion, the ideas that excited imaginations and the tactics that worked ... and didn't. The book is out of print but generally findable in a reasonable time. Buy the book.


This excerpt is from:

Chapter 7: This Land of Promise

Railroad promoters recognized that the American character was compounded of equal elements of deep-seated fear and overweening pride. They probed the admixture, soothing their countrymen's worst anxieties and exploiting the national character's more positive aspects, which often lay much closer to the surface, especially its proclivity to expect a rosier future. Nowhere was this appeal to native optimism more evident than in the literature that touched on the possibility that railroads would unlock the treasures of the West.

Nothing so captured Americans' imaginations as their West. It became a metaphor for the character of America. For generations, it stood as the quintessential symbol for everything that made the country unique. The adjectives that promoters used to describe the West were those that were often applied to the entire nation. Enthusiasts loved to emphasize that the West was big, continental in scope, and, like the nation itself, boundless, with its limits always beyond the horizon. Writers emphasized the West's fertility, evoking a natural comparison with the whole nation's tremendous population growth, scientific maturity, and ability to generate new ideas. Americans were also convinced their West was a great national storehouse. The undeveloped region was like money in the U.S. bank account to be drawn upon to replenish operating capital from time to time. Above all, the West was there to serve the national good; it was owned by all and it was an important goal in a nation many feared was tearing itself apart. It was more amorphous than most goals, but it gave promoters a handy geographical destination for their roads. They were going to tap the West's riches; the number of railroad companies with "and Western" in their corporate names was ample testimony to that belief.

Interestingly, the language promoters used to describe the West bore striking similarities to that they used to characterize the railroads themselves. Like the wilderness, railroads were great, continental, fertile in that they spawned countless imitators and supporting businesses, keys to prosperity, servants of the nation's good, and, for many, goals. Railways, too, were celebrations of the country's good fortune and wisdom. They were the right application of new scientific principles to America s endless natural resources that would help it to overcome its profound defects. Railroads and the West naturally joined together metaphorically and otherwise to illustrate the character of the nation.

The railway advocates' early "Wests" were located anywhere not many people lived, northern Vermont, upstate New York, the southern tier of the Empire state, northwest Pennsylvania, everywhere in the South, west of the Appalachians, and out in the boondocks of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. As railways pushed up to the edges of these wildernesses, however, a subtle redefinition of what constituted a West occurred. Wests could have people, villages, towns, post offices, roads, taverns, and even newspapers and still be Wests. Once railroads, as the agents of progress and modernity intruded, however, the areas immediately became something other than Wests. And this made logical sense. If railroads transformed already mature regions and were a vital part of Americans' image of an advanced civilization, then their effect on any West could only be explosive. These notions, widespread by the mid-l830s, left ample room for Wests in the East to coexist with the image of the Great West that lay out across the mighty Mississippi.

As befitted a practical lot of men, however, railroad enthusiasts were not interested in defining a West; their Wests were more in the order of a goal, places to reach out to, Edens to be tightly bound to the rest of the nation with bands of iron for the benefit of all, as they liked to say. But as children of the Romantic Age and agents of a Manifest Destiny, railway promoters could not help taking on the coloration of their times when describing what they expected to find "out there." Witness the editor of the Knickerbocker who, as early as 1837, predicted a transcontinental railroad. When he gazed west he saw "the mountains of coal, the vast meadow seas the fields of salt, the mighty forests, with their trees two hundred and fifty feet in height, the stores of magnesia, the crystallized lakes of valuable salts." Others, schooled in the classical tradition, identified the West with antiquity. Thomas Hart Benton, senator from Missouri and father-in-law of "The Pathfinder," General John C. Fremont, habitually spoke of the West as "rich like Egypt." The lesser-known William G. Moorhead, president of the Sunbury and Erie Rail Road, announced to his stockholders in 1859 that the wealth of more than fourteen thousand square miles of our [Pennsylvania's] territory, awaits in the silence almost of an Arabian desert, a highway to the markets of the world." The editor of the Savannah Georgian raised his metaphorical sights a bit higher when he rhapsodized that "it is pleasant, sometimes, to send our thoughts in advance of the times," to the West, where Americans could "like the spies of old, revel in the land of promise, and bring back from it those rich fruits and those good reports, which shall stimulate us to go forward and enter upon their possession.''

Where some saw magnesia, of all things, and others saw fruits, all agreed that the West was surely the garden of the world. Minor, in an 1835 editorial, was more direct about it all; it was almost as if those bearing the responsibility for introducing modern science to the romantic age had the responsibility to couch it in less flowery rhetoric. "The territory between the Lakes, the Ohio River, and the Rocky Mountains," was, he assured his readers, simply"the garden of the world." Ten months after he used the same metaphor in behalf of his Erie Railroad, promising that it "will open another ready avenue to the fertile valleys of the garden of the world." The Chicago Advertiser some eighteen years later in 1853 showed the timelessness of apt metaphors when the editor used it to push for construction of a road from Chicago to St. Louis. After the usual bunkum assuring everyone that the line would be "one of the most productive roads in the Union," the editor "proved" it by reporting that "the country through which this road passes has been called by all geographers and journalists who traveled over it, the garden spot of the state, and of the West." Those of a practical bent recognized the contradiction inherent in the wilderness-garden image. Thomas Fernon, president of the North Pennsylvania Railroad certainly did; despite his zeal to promote his road as Philadelphia's great north route to western New York, he could not quite bring himself to use the garden-spot metaphor to describe the countryside it would open up. He was a bit more realistic, describing it as "a wilderness, awaiting the axe and the plough."

A year earlier Poor had taken the same prosaic thought and wrapped it in a more romantic mantle when he noted that "we are a country of boundless resources" and "it must be remembered that we are reclaiming a continent from a state of nature." Poor was always wont to look at everything in larger terms, and the West offered a tempting target. Soon he took aim again in an article ostensibly on Chicago's explosive growth. He was more anxious, however, to point out that "during the same period, a vast territory, embracing an area equal to that of several of our largest States, will have been reclaimed from nature, and filled with an active, industrious and prosperous people. Where," he asked rhetorically, "can the world show a parallell [sic]?"

Poor was playing with one of the most common images of the West -- its greatness. "Great" was an integral, if often unstated, element of every western metaphor, and most writers used the adjective without explanation or definition. Thus, a Danville and Pottsville Rail Road Company committee report for 1839 declared that its road "will keep open at all seasons of the year a direct and speedy communication with the great west." A Pennsylvania state legislature committee capitalized on the notion in 1845 when it reported that New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia have "been expending millions of money to secure ... the immense trade of the 'Great West.''' And Roebling played down railroad competition with the observance that ''we will remember the Great West offers room for us all!" When Poor looked over his railroad map at mid-century, he concluded that the network of rails creeping across Ohio demonstrated that "the great west with all her resources and productions will be opened to the world. Eastern arithmetic,"he added, "has no rule by which to compute the extent of trade from this course."

Some railway promoters looked at the West and saw nothing except vast areas and distant horizons almost too large to do justice to with mere words. The West was sometimes overwhelming. A writer in the American Railroad Journal in 1845 thought so, observing that "the boundless and fertile west will furnish an amount of produce, almost beyond ordinary comprehension." Minor was not immune to the image of the West as limitless either. A month later when he lectured his readers on the absolute necessity for eastern cities, especially New York, to hold the western trade, he promised "a city sustained by that trade can never languish, for the increase of production of the western states is almost boundless." Eli Bowen, author of The Pictorial Sketchbook of Pennsylvania (1852) and noted for his U.S. Post-Office Guide, was so taken with the West in his case the northwestern portion of his native state, that he almost ran out of adjectives to describe its extent. His Sunbury and Erie Railroad, if ever built, he claimed would traverse land that "is rich in every source of intrinsic wealth; vast quantities of timber of the best kind for building or shipping purposes, as well as an inexhaustible supply of anthracite and bituminous coals and iron ore together with the produce of a rich farming district, will seek a market over this road." Later he characterized the wilderness as the repository of "an incalculable amount of wealth." Bowen's West had no beginnings or ends, no limits at all, like his United States.

Americans were only about a half century removed from British ownership, so it was only natural that their own vast, remote provinces should remind them of a colonial appendage. The empire metaphor popped up as early as 1827, when the citizens of Baltimore met and concluded that "when we regard the situation of Baltimore, as respects the populous and productive empire growing up in her rear," only a railway could secure "the larger portion of the western trade." The officers of the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston Railroad Company adopted the same metaphor in their 1840 annual report and grafted it to the image of the West as youthful Eastern cities, the officials explained, "gather strength from the contributions of that mighty empire west, which like a giant, has sprung from its cradle." The empire metaphor was popular in the South, too, as the editor of the Macon Messenger illustrated when he suggested in 1851 that his readers "lose no time in extending their business relations to East Tennessee. She is a young Empire in herself." He could have added that East Tennessee was also a West. An empire, of course, suggested an organization to facilitate largescale trade, an idea that blended nicely with already preconceived notions of the West's usefulness. The whole idea of a captive trading region, implicit in the earliest railway literature, became more fixed as the vears followed and as roads actually created commercial empires beholden to them. As railroad competition dramatically increased in the 1850s, the empire metaphor took on a more clearly delineated meaning; it became commercial in nature and reflected a new image.

That metaphorical redefinition lay in the future, however; at the railroads' birth, their enthusiasts fell easily into a metaphor that emphasized fertility, the potential richness that lay locked in the untapped western regions. DeBow's Review reprinted a report Colonel Gadsden of South Carolina submitted to the 1845 Memphis railroad convention. There Gadsden contrasted the specter of mass starvation that he thought kept "the European countries in an annual state of alarm" with the Mississippi Valley from which he was sure "the deficiencies of other portions of the world can be supplied from the overflowing granaries of this land of promise."

Railroad publicists did not originate the fertility metaphor; it had been a vital element in American literature since Jamestown. Promoters, however, continued the metaphor and gave it new meanings and directions. To some, fertility indicated potential wealth and ultimately progress. Those citizens who agitated for a Baltimore railroad in 1827 opened their petition with the modest assertion that "the fertile districts Iying west of the Allegheny ridge, and watered by the Ohio and the Mississippi, are among the most remarkable in the world." But the drafters of that document continued with a slightly different twist when they claimed that "there are countries, perhaps, which excel a part of the regions we speak of, in fertility, and in the value of their products; but none whose progress is to be compared to theirs." The rate of progress in exploiting the West's natural fertility was more important than its output.

Indeed, easterners constantly marveled at western growth rates, proof, many said, of the immense benefits that resulted from better transportation. Minor noted this phenomenon in 1835, after the Buckeye state opened the Ohio and Miami canals. "The brief statement appended," he promised, "shows conclusively the immense increase of business in the West." A Macon editor added the fertility metaphor to his exhortation to fellow Georgians to tap the East Tennessee trade. He painted a rosy picture of "her rich valleys and fertile hill sides [that] are destined to teem with valuable products." Chicago promoters resorted to the same metaphor when, in 1853, the local Advocate praised its territory to the south as the "most fertile and beautiful country in the world." The editor pointed out however, that "with its unsurpassed agricultural, manufacturing, and mineral advantages, and the salubrity of the climate, as soon as they are seen and known, will invite a flood of immigration of the best character to improve every acre of land convenient" to the proposed railroad. Fertility was potential, simply awaiting railroads and immigrants to release the West's pent-up treasures.

A Mr. Parry, a member of the New Jersey legislature, made this point in an 1854 debate over the South Jersey Central and Air Line Railroad bill, when he pointed out to his fellow congressmen that "the unparallelled [sic] prosperity of the Western States is owing more to the construction of railroads through their midst than to any other artificial cause." His metaphor took firm root in its own rich soil as he rhetorically asked, "to what would the great fertility of their soil amount, if they had not the means of carrying its products speedily to market?" Without citing his sources, Parry told his colleagues that "a comparison of the wealth of the counties having railroads with other parts of the states, shows that their greatest prosperity is along the railroad lines,-' and he was sure that "the hardy pioneers of the west, as soon as they get their land cleared, want a railroad to carry their crops to market, being well persuaded that a market will not come to them."

The fertility metaphor not only hinted at future potential and the common good, but also implied wealth and richness. DeBow illustrated this very nicely when he extracted a long quote from Hunt's Merchant's Magazine in 1846 that began, "the West is richer than the East in the surplus products of the soil, and every year will increase its advantage." The author guessed that "the West, in sixty years, will probably contain one hundred millions of people, while the East will have but twenty millions." His West, like that of many other commentators, was always in a state of becoming -- like railroads. And its potential was unlimited. President Patterson of the Pennsylvania Railroad summed it up succinctly in his 1852 annual report when he told his stockholders that "we may confidently anticipate the rich harvest which awaits its [the Pennsylvania's] completion." He knew who would benefit from that "harvest." "It is right to speak of revenue to the stockholders," he counseled, "as secondary to the GREAT PUBLIC BENEFIT, which it was the primary object of this work to secure.''

People and transportation were the only missing ingredients needed to open the rich harvest locked in the nation's West. Railway promoters understood that simply describing the West's vast riches was not sufficient to lure capital and folks into the wilderness. Minor noted this in 1837 when he pointed out that "if natural advantages, such as those of location, climate, &c. are to be solely relied upon, the Indians on the Pacific might indulge a reasonable hope of obtaining and holding to our exclusion, the whole China and Pacific trade."

These new pockets of civilization were destined to get rich quickly, or so most Americans chose to believe. This idea was so common it even took root in rural Tennessee, where the editor of the Trenton Emporium noted that "the valley of the Mississippi is destined not only to sustain its countless millions of future population, but ... to become the granary and storehouse of a large portion of the civilized world." At mid-century Poor noticed that the great emigration into the West was drawing off population from the East and that the emigrants were eventually sending manufactured goods and foodstuffs back to the seaboard. The newly resettled people, Poor thought, "have shortened the agricultural age of the Ohio Valley to a period measured by tens instead of hundreds of years. They are now bringing us the products of Pittsburgh, Wheeling, and Cincinnati workshops." The New York editor even had an eye for the insignificant but telling anecdote; he commented that "Nashville bids highest for our professors."


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