- Reviewed by
Any case of truly unique accomplishment can provoke two contradictory responses simultaneously. Wow, that is impressive! Jeez, who could imagine doing such a thing? This book elicits both [End Page 230] reactions. Through exhaustive research in primary sources, A Most Magnificent Machine provides a thorough and highly original survey of how Americans viewed railroads in the first three decades of their development. Minor amassed his narrative from a close reading of antebellum newspapers, examining four hundred thousand articles from all regions of the country. Wow! Jeez!
The book has an appealing immediacy, as Minor worked hard to keep himself in the background, giving primacy to those thousands of antebellum observers. He organizes the narrative into fourteen thematic chapters, covering such topics as the boundless optimism of the early projectors and advocates, the successive waves of railroad building as it spread across successive regions, popular condemnation of rickety railroad finances after the Panic of 1837, the experience of riding the cars, views on corporate power and obligations, responses to accidents, the promotions in the "Near West" country of Ohio to Illinois, railroading in the South, and the agitations for a transcontinental line. These themes are really organizing categories, not arguments. He ignores most of the vast secondary literature on railroads. Instead, we hear from the anonymous journalists, hidden promoters and stock jobbers, and everyday letters to the editor.
The resulting insights are often marvelously original. Tempering the booster rhetoric, a Massachusetts writer warned insightfully in 1828 that railroads might not "comport with the common habits and opinions of the people" (p. 15). In the aftermath of the 1837 panic, some writers condemned extensive state debts incurred on behalf of railroads, but others believed that private corporations caused the panic because they were inherently inefficient. A low standard of etiquette prevailed on early trains, and complaints were common. Among the burdens, "rail car poison"—an onboard miasma of smell, spit, and smoky air that made passengers "as dull as a clod" (pp. 102-3). Of course the "luxury of a new sensation" outweighed the problems for most (p. 106). Indeed endless boosterism dominates as a major theme in the book—not surprisingly. Nonetheless, Minor turns up marvelous new insights, such as a widely-shared notion in the southern [End Page 231] press that railroads would end up strengthening slavery (p. 211).
The book has its shortcomings as well. There are no maps and its few illustrations add essentially nothing to the text. A greater liability is Minor's decision to hide his own voice. Make no mistake; one modern author is at work here— selecting and ordering his material—a towering job. And yet Minor could have gotten more from his sources had he posed some critical questions of them. For example, he simply asserts that isolated lines had, by the mid-1830s, become "a rail network" (p. 53). That dating appears thirty to fifty years early. In any case, Minor had the source base to really explore a fascinating question here—when did Americans begin to think and act as if regions had a real network of lines, not a haphazard array of different transport links, some complementary and some competitive? Another missed opportunity: when did writers perceive that railroads had outstripped the powers of the cities and states that created and nurtured them? And what did they propose, if anything, to rein them back in? Perhaps the newspapers were mute on these points, but Minor gives too little perspective even on that key question: what did the journalists miss?
Nonetheless, the accomplishment here is impressive. As a capstone to a distinguished career, Craig Minor has recovered and presented the voices and thoughts of the first generations of Americans to experience the wonders and the challenges of the railway age—an age that remade their own lives and ours.
John K. (Jack) Brown teaches the history of technology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.