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Railroads in the Old South

Pursuing Progress in a Slave Society

Aaron W. Marrs

Publication Year: 2009

Aaron W. Marrs challenges the accepted understanding of economic and industrial growth in antebellum America with this original study of the history of the railroad in the Old South. Drawing from both familiar and overlooked sources, such as the personal diaries of Southern travelers, papers and letters from civil engineers, corporate records, and contemporary newspaper accounts, Marrs skillfully expands on the conventional business histories that have characterized scholarship in this field. He situates railroads in the fullness of antebellum life, examining how slavery, technology, labor, social convention, and the environment shaped their evolution. Far from seeing the Old South as backward and premodern, Marrs finds evidence of urban life, industry, and entrepreneurship throughout the region. But these signs of progress existed alongside efforts to preserve traditional ways of life. Railroads exemplified Southerners' pursuit of progress on their own terms: developing modern transportation while retaining a conservative social order. Railroads in the Old South demonstrates that a simple approach to the Old South fails to do justice to its complexity and contradictions.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xii

Like most first academic books, this work began as a doctoral dissertation. Before that it was a seminar paper, and before that it was a conversation with Mark M. Smith, my dissertation director at the University of South Carolina. I owe much of my intellectual and professional development to his constant wise counsel. He has been tireless in reading and rereading drafts, offering advice as I ventured out onto...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. xiii


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pp. xiv-xx

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pp. 1-10

While writing his memoirs in the 1870s, Kentucky paper maker Ebenezer Hiram Stedman recalled the rumors spread about railroads in the mid-1820s: “For More than two years we heard most Remarkable Storyes about Rail Roads. Some People Said that They had Seen Cariges drawn on a Rail Road by Steam. He was put down as a Munchawson.” 1 Some of the stories were so fantastical that locals were probably...

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ONE: Dreams

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pp. 11-30

Business leaders in 1820s Charleston, South Carolina, faced a problem. Just a few decades removed from the city’s colonial position of economic preeminence, they worried that land values were falling, industry was stagnant, houses sat unoccupied, and grass grew “uninterrupted in some of her chief business streets.” Although rival cities such as Savannah were drawing away precious trade, these business...

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TWO: Knowledge

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pp. 31-54

When Charleston attempted to improve its fortunes with a railroad, Georgians did not sit idly by. In July 1833 a public meeting in Augusta agitated for a railroad, and citizens successfully incorporated the Georgia Railroad Company that December.The company was given the authority to construct a railroad leading out of the town, linking the interior to the Savannah River. While the road was to be con-...

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THREE: Sweat

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pp. 55-83

If the work of engineers and contractors illustrates the parallelism of northern and southern development, examining the labor under their control yields an important difference between North and South. Southern railroads made abundant use of slave labor. There is no better illustration of the South’s attempt to integrate its preferred social order with the demands of modern technology than the degree to...

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FOUR: Structure

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pp. 84-105

Railroad companies began operations as soon as they possessed enough track and rolling stock to do so. Building a railroad was a costly enterprise, and whatever revenue might be obtained from operating, even over a short distance, was welcome indeed. The SCRR did not complete its initial route to Hamburg until 1833, but trains began operating much earlier than that. On January 6, 1831, the railroad announced...

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FIVE: Motion

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pp. 106-134

The management structures that railroads put into place soon had to face the challenges of railroad operation. Three important aspects of railroad operations considered in this chapter include the task of delivering freight, dealing with the unpredictability of nature, and averting accidents. Although the standard narrative of southern railroads portrays them as usually carrying cotton to the coast, a close...

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SIX: Passages

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pp. 135-161

It can be difficult for the modern reader to understand the appeal of railroads to the antebellum traveler. Living among jet planes that promise speed and highways that promise independence, a steam train pulling along at twenty miles per hour and only at certain scheduled times seems unbearable. When reading accounts of railroad travel in the antebellum era, however, it is crucial that we remember the...

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SEVEN: Communities

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pp. 162-191

Passengers and shippers were obviously important constituencies for railroads,because they supplied revenue. But railroad corporations dealt with a wide range of groups, including some that never boarded the trains. As soon as railroads entered communities, different interest groups interacted with and placed their demands on railroads. Thus, the railroad did not possess a single meaning for...

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Epilogue: Memory

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pp. 192-198

The rapid construction of the 1850s was brought to a halt by the Civil War. Some corporations reacted to the changing political situation of the 1850s with political statements of their own. With disunion on the horizon, the RDRR’s board of directors declared that they “will hereafter abstain from procuring supplies for the use of the Railroad Co from the Northern or Nonslaveholding states in all cases when...


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pp. 199-254

Essay on Sources

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pp. 255-260


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pp. 261-268

E-ISBN-13: 9780801898457
E-ISBN-10: 0801898455
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801891304
Print-ISBN-10: 0801891302

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 7 halftones, 12 line drawings
Publication Year: 2009