The West the Railroads Made
America's Railroad Age was little more than a decade old when Ralph Waldo Emerson uttered these prophetic words: "Railroad iron is a magician's rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water." Railroads exercised a remarkable hold on the imagination. The railroad was not merely transportation; it was a technology that promised to transform the world. Railroads were second only to the federal government in shaping the West, and nowhere was that shaping more visible than on the Great Plains and in large parts of the Pacific Northwest.
The West the Railroads Made recounts the stories of visionaries such as Henry Harmon Spalding, Samuel Parker, and Asa Whitney, who imagined the railroad as a new Northwest Passage, an iron road through the West to the Orient. As the idea of a Pacific Railroad grew in the 1840s and 1850s, many Americans imagined the West as a fertile garden or a treasure chest of priceless minerals. Railroads could deliver the riches of that West into the hands and pockets of the modern world. These two compelling ideas—the railroad and the West—came together to create an irresistible dream. Filled with contemporary accounts, illustrations, and photographs, The West the Railroads Made offers a fresh look at what the iron road created.
If railroads brought the West into the world, they also brought the world to the West. In less than half a century, railroads made the West a permanent extension of the modern, capitalist world. Washington Territory governor Marshall F. Moore got it right when he described railroads as the "vast machinery for the building up of empires." The West the Railroads Made portrays the size and complexity of that railroad empire. Railroads brought immigrants by the thousands, forever changing the character of the West's human population. Railroads also promoted agriculture, ranching, and mining on a grand scale. They constructed their own landscapes filled with depots, roundhouses, bridges, and tunnels. Through the depot came mail-order treasures, the latest newspapers, and letters from distant friends. Beyond the right-of-way, the presence of the railroad was felt every day in hundreds of small towns.
The railroad West sprang to life with amazing speed. Overnight a windswept stretch of Wyoming became Cheyenne. Prairies were fenced or plowed to make rangeland or farmland. New plants and animals shoved aside those that did not fit marketplace needs. All of this was touted as the new West, the railroad West. But all too often, the railroad West promised prosperity and security but delivered hard times and bitterness. By the middle of the twentieth century, many parts of the West were filled with empty farmhouses, nearly abandoned towns, and boarded-up stations.
For more than a century the American West was the Railroad West. While the railroad's influence was challenged in the twentieth century by automobiles and the interstate highway system, railroads did not vanish from the landscape. Instead, they reinvented themselves. Companies merged to create superrailroads, service on unprofitable routes was ended, and trademark passenger trains vanished. In their place came mile-long trains hauling coal, grain, and lumber. Containers stacked with consumer goods from Asia rode on tracks that were the modern version of the Northwest Passage. The iron road had once defined the West; now it was part of a larger landscape.
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"This superbly illustrated book shows how railroads shaped the Plains and mountain states."—Great Plains Quarterly
"Lavishly illustrated, well-written, and superbly printed, The West the Railroads Made is a work of art in and of itself, and its conceptualization of the railroads and their imprint on time, art, community, and regional development over the span of roughly 150 years is both well done and thought provoking."—Montana: The Magazine of Western History
"An impressively smart and lavishly illustrated survey of the impact of the railroads on the American West. Schwantes and Ronda are reliably astute and admirably fair. They have produced a volume that goes well beyond description, and is a wonderful guide for thinking with and about railroads."—Richard White, Western Historical Quarterly
"At first glance it may appear that this volume is one more in a line of celebratory tributes to the power of the industry, full of the colorful advertisements and optimistic tributes to the railroad as the builder of civilization across a majestic landscape. Nearly every page contains an illustration that invites quick perusal. But the text skillfully interprets the images and balances the story that railroads originally told about the region, one that boosted their properties and promoted settlement and travels along their lines . . . . The authors have effectively distilled a large body of historiography into one readable and engaging volume."—Nebraska History
"The West the Railroads Made is a book that will be of interest to railroad buffs, the general public, and scholars alike, and it does a good job of explaining the many changes the railroads brought to the region."—Pacific Northwest Quarterly
"This lavishly appointed book showcases the fabulously rich holdings of the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library houses within the St. Louis Mercantile Library . . . . The West the Railroads Made is a delightful read and a valuable resource that belongs in the personal libraries of railroad aficionados everywhere, scholars and buffs alike."—Technology and Culture
"The compelling narrative and stunning illustrations will appeal to all readers. Schwantes and Ronda are to be congratulated for having given general readers and scholars alike this thoughtful and beautiful reminder that not all truly revolutionary technologies are current ones, that in their century railroads worked a magic every bit as transformative of life and economy as today's computers. Perhaps there is something in that for all of us to learn."—Oregon Historical Quarterly
"From the University of Washington Press comes this definitive book about the role of the railroads in the development of the American West. In The West the Railroads Made authors Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda combine their vast knowledge of the history of the American West highlighting all the important roles of the railroads."—Great Northern in the News
"While no single volume of this size can capture all the influences of railroads in the western US, this book should serve as a general overview and introduction to the subject."—Choice
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