Scholar Richard White Gives Dimension to the History of the Railroad
Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, a new book by historian Richard White, is “smashingly researched, cleverly written, and shrewdly argued all the way through,” says William Deverell, the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. The book, 12 years in the making, is a “powerful, smart, even angry book about politics, greed, corruption, money, and corporate arrogance, and the America formed out of them after the Civil War,” he adds.
White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, spoke to us about the way he balanced his own unique brand of storytelling with an equally creative use of historical data through something called the Spatial History Project, a collaborative community of scholars who use visual analysis and digital technology to identify patterns and anomalies in their research.
How should we read the book—as business history, environmental history, history of technology, or all of the above?
All of the above. I weave various strands of history together, so anybody who is looking for a sort of clean, direct narrative— in which one thing determines all—has probably found the wrong book. I attempt to bring in a whole variety of subjects that influenced railroads and show why they came to be in the late 19th century.
“The 19th century really was the golden age of vituperation. Like any historian, I’m trying to give the sense of the time.”
You intersperse sprawling chapters about big railroad companies with small vignettes that almost stand alone as parables of the railroad age. How did this structure come about?
As I wrote the narrative, I realized it was all taking place in a fairly grand scale—with prominent political leaders and large corporations run by larger-than-life characters. But the railroads also touched individual lives. So how was I going to put those smaller stories in? I decided to do these railroad lives—which I also call mise en scènes—where in fact I would take stories from various archives, stories that were literally too good to leave out, and use them to illustrate larger themes on a much smaller scale.
That term—mise en scène—implies a visual kind of storytelling, which could be one way of thinking about the way you use data to tell different kinds of stories. How does your Spatial History Lab at Stanford University factor into the book?
At the Spatial History Lab, we use GIS technology that allows us to take various data such as freight costs or population growth and show them in a single frame in relation to railroad lines. What you find is that people in the 19th century who were used to plotting distance in terms of miles or time were now measuring it in terms of cost, and that cost was under the control of the railroad companies who could make the near far and the far near.
You use a great example to describe this phenomenon in your reference to a passage from Frank Norris’ book The Octopus, in which a character named Harran Derrick watches a load pass by his fictional San Joaquin Valley town of Bonneville. The goods go all the way to San Francisco at a low rate before being delivered to Bonneville on another train at a higher rate.
The world is arranged like tinker toys, with the round parts being the railroad stations. So goods move from station to station. You very often have to ship something to a central location and then send it back to the smaller town it just passed through. It’s very similar to air travel today—you arrive into a hub before backtracking to your local destination. But this means the hubs get all the economic advantages and the local places get all the disadvantages, and that affects the way you organize a business, how you organize farms, and how you organize anything. A wholesaler in San Francisco, for example, usually had lower transportation costs than a wholesaler in Sacramento for goods shipped from Chicago even though Sacramento was closer to Chicago.
And, at the same time you’re mining a variety of data sets to write this history, you’re also dipping into iconic writers like Norris, Anthony Trollope, and Mark Twain. How much were you reading the fiction of this era while you were writing this book?
I systematically reread 19th-century fiction, and I found that the kinds of things that concern me in my own research were, in fact, objects of concern at that time. Nineteenth-century writers very often could put things pithily that would take a very long time for me to explain.
You seem to do more than simply quote from these colorful writers. Historian Donald Worster reviewed your book for the web-based magazine Slate.com and called you “a Thorsten Veblen for our time” and “a master of invective.” Were you channeling writers like Ambrose Bierce?
The 19th century really was the golden age of vituperation. Like any historian, I’m trying to give the sense of the time. And by pulling back and using a more academic prose, I thought I would lose too much of that power and authenticity. Nineteenth-century novels have a straightforward, frank, vigorous prose that does not hesitate to name names in these kinds of things. So in that sense, yeah, it’s a quite conscious decision, but if people say I’m a master of invective, I just always have to say that, compared to these guys, I’m still an apprentice.
You devote a whole chapter to exploring the notion of friendship in this age of contentiousness. What did friendship mean to the so-called Big Four who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad?
The idea of exploring friendship came from my intensive reading of the correspondence of these business people and politicians who called themselves friends. As I say in the book, it was like being in a Quaker meeting—it was Friend Hopkins and Friend Stanford. But I would read the rest of the correspondence, and even though they addressed one another as friends, it was very clear that many of them didn’t like each other and, over the course of long lives, came to despise each other.
Mark Hopkins and Collis P. Huntington were friends, but both strongly disliked Leland Stanford, and yet Stanford still remained “a friend.” So my challenge was to determine whether this was simply hypocrisy, or was it that I didn’t understand what friendship meant in this context? And I realized that friendship had very little to do with affection— it wasn’t necessary to 19th-century friendship. Friends were people who needed each other; friends were people who had a common set of interests. Friendship wasn’t bribery; friendship made bribery unnecessary. Friendship was an act of reciprocity, over a long period of time—I do you favors, you do me favors. What made friendship so corrupt, of course, was when private favors were exchanged for public favors. Who your friends were pretty much determined how politics were going to work for you.
What kinds of stories emerged from the correspondence collections at The Huntington?
I used Collis P. Huntington’s papers a lot, but they’re at Syracuse, not so much here. But Henry Huntington’s papers pick up and cover a lot of things that his uncle’s don’t. Before Henry was rich in Los Angeles with his various ventures and city railcar system, he was a key figure in the Southern Pacific, and he was one of the few people whom his uncle trusted, so his papers are a gold mine. And the exchanges with his uncle are incredibly frank. I mean it’s a historian’s dream because you can’t believe they are actually saying this stuff and preserving it. Henry, for example, preserves some of the detective reports submitted by operatives whom Southern Pacific executives used to spy on each other.
But not everybody preserved it. You said that Stanford’s wife destroyed all of his letters and personal papers?
The irony of destroying your papers is that all the stuff you sent to others is still in their possession, so there are still plenty of Leland Stanford letters out there. This allows people like Hopkins and Huntington to have the last word on Stanford. Stanford’s counterargument has been destroyed.
Interview conducted by Matt Stevens, editor of Huntington Frontiers.
From 1864 to 1869, photographer Alfred A. Hart tracked the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, producing more than 350 stereographs in the process. When viewed through a stereoscope, a small card such as “First Construction Train Past the Palisades” (right) would transform into a three-dimensional world.
Today, Richard White and the Spatial History Lab at Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West are using 21st-century technology to change the way we perceive the world of 19th-century railroads. For links to the Lab’s many visualizations, including a modern retracing of Hart’s path, go to http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/project.php?id=997.
For Further Reading
The Fall 2011 issue of California History, the journal of the California Historical Society, is the perfect companion to Railroaded, as it is devoted entirely to Richard White’s book. Essays by Daniel Carpenter, Steven W. Usselman, Naomi R. Lamoreaux, and Eric Rauchway critique White’s work from various perspectives, including business, technology, and political history. The essays resulted from a symposium that took place at The Huntington in July 2011, sponsored by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. The journal also features comments from William Deverell, director of the institute, and a response from White himself.