Advertisement

Allan Powell: Building a railroad - fact and fiction

July 12, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

There was a ready attraction to “The Great American Railroad War” when I saw it on the book shelf — as a fan of country music, having a collection of legendary railroad songs such as “The Wabash Cannonball,” “Wreck of the Old 97” and “Orange Blossom Special” that give me much joy with my harmonica.

Then, too, there are vivid memories going back to 1943, when I traveled by rail from Hagerstown to San Diego on a dusty, smelly locomotive with no beds. We improvised by using the seat backs to form a flat surface. Our seaplane squadron left our whole fleet of old PBY planes at Norfolk with orders to meet in San Diego. Here, we would pick up new PBY5A planes, for patrol duty in the South Pacific, starting at Guadalcanal. That most uncomfortable rail trip cautioned all of us about the reliability of the romanticized legends of railroads.

The truly remarkable story of the building of the transcontinental railroad has been enriched and preserved by the labor and talents of two gifted writers of the period: Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, who kept watchful eyes on the worthy and unworthy activities of the “Big Four” builders of the Central Pacific Railroad — Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker.

There are actually two, never separable stories, beginning early in the 1860s, that read more like fiction than fact. The incredible (almost unbelievable) account of the construction of these early railroads boggles the mind and imagination with eyewitness accounts of fraud, bribery, greed, inhumane insensitivity to suffering and gross abuse of power. Almost anything and everyone was for sale. When Huntington tried to bribe Bierce into writing in support, he offered the opinion, “Well, name your price; every man has his price.”

Author Dennis Drabelle does a fine job of filtering out the important features of this historic event from his sources. He shows the power of novels and journalism to expose evil and influence public opinion to rein in bold attempts to monopolize industry and business and crude attempts to leech from the public treasury. He also balances the glory of the conquest of huge mountains by skillful blasting and ingenious engineering with the sordid abuse of human beings in searing heat and bitter cold.

A monumental celebration took place on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Point, Utah, when the two competing systems converged and drove a gold spike into a wooden tie with a silver sledge. The Central Pacific (coming from the West) had laid 744 miles of track while the Union Pacific (coming from the East) laid 1,032 miles of track. Railroads were awarded 23 million acres of land and about $75 million in very generous loans from the federal government.

A major battle took place in 1896 between the “Big Four” rail magnates and the federal government when the builders requested that Congress extend the payment of $70 billion in loans for 50 years. This could be accomplished by converting the debt into 50-year bonds, paying 3 percent interest, to be held by the government. Bierce went to Washington to observe and report this highly charged congressional battle. He was appalled at the number of lobbyists hired by the railroad. The miracle was that they failed.

Norris wrote “The Octopus,” a scathing account of railroad corruption, using the same symbolism (the octopus) made popular by artist James Swimmerton. This famous cartoon presented the railroads as a beastly creature with huge tentacles reaching out in all directions — sucking up every source of nourishment (read money) within its grasp. All of this was the norm during the era called the age of the “robber barons.” Their excesses ushered in a reaction known as the progressive era, getting impetus from Theodore Roosevelt.

It might be instructive at this point to borrow some insight from the famed British historian, Arnold Toynbee. He saw the rise and fall of civilizations to be governed by two conditions: challenges and responses. Those civilizations survived that consistently meet an emerging challenge with an adequate response. The challenge of this period of our history was that of putting a bridle on an unruly creature — the monopolistic giants dominating our industries and businesses that asserted the right to unfettered markets. The response was several regulatory measures such as anti-trust laws and commissions charged with the responsibility to maintain open and fair market practices. We will always need bright and morally sensitive investigative reporters and novelists to alert our citizenry about abuses of power.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.



Advertisement
The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|