The Railway Age and After (March 2024)

This essay first appeared in the March 2024 issue of Choice (volume 61 | issue 7).

Introduction:

For more than a century, railroads in the United States have exerted a profound influence on its citizenry. In recent decades they have continued to play an important role in regional and international transportation. Once introduced, it took only roughly a generation before steam-powered trains came to dominate land transportation. As the 1830s dawned, the first iron horses appeared, making their debut on the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad, the South Carolina Canal & Rail Road, and the Mohawk & Hudson Rail Road. Children may have read about the Tom Thumb, the tiny steam locomotive of the B&O, although they are less likely to know about the Best Friend of Charleston in South Carolina or the DeWitt Clinton in New York. Good coverage of the gestation years can be found in The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore & Ohiothe Nation’s First Railroad1828–1853,by James Dilts.

At first glance, by looking in libraries and bookstores, one would get the impression that every possible facet of railroad history had been covered, often many times over.What stands out are the paucity of so-called big picture books that describe and analyze the historic role of American railroads. Fortunately, a few exist. Older volumes includeRobert Riegel’s The Story of the Western Railroads and Robert Henry’s This Fascinating Railroad Business.More recent works that focus on the nineteenth century include H. Craig Miner’s A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825–1862; Richard White’s Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America; andGeorge Rogers Tayler and Irene D. Neu’s The American Railroad Network, 1861–1890. For coverage of the twentieth century, Robert Gallamore and John Meyer’s American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century and Albro Martin’s Railroads Triumphant: The Growth, Rejection, and Rebirth of a Vital American Force stand out. An overview that covers both centuries can be found in the second edition of John Stover’s study American Railroads. Still, there remains a need for a single-volume, interpretative history of the American railroads.


About the Author:

H. Roger Grant was formerly a professor of history at Clemson University in South Carolina. The author, coauthor, or editor of forty academic books, he was one of the nation’s foremost railroad and transportation scholars. Sadly, Dr. Grant passed away on November 17, 2023. Those wishing to learn more may read his obituary. Dr. Grant wrote the following essay for Choice before his passing, for which we are grateful.