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  • Encyclopedia of North American Railroads
  • A. A. Den Otter (bio)
Encyclopedia of North American Railroads. Edited by William D. Middleton, George M. Smerk, and Roberta L. Diehl. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Pp. xii+1281. $99.95.

Five introductory essays in this Encyclopedia of North American Railroads provide a good overview of the history of the industry in the United States. [End Page 472] In the first, Keith L. Bryant presents a superb survey that properly touches on social, political, and economic spheres in the life of a nation. Nevertheless, to properly earn its title, the essay should have contained more than one paragraph each on the Canadian and Mexican rail systems. Canada's Grand Trunk, for example, was for a time the longest international railway in the world. Moreover, along with the Great Western and the Canadian Pacific, the Grand Trunk serves as a fitting example of how railway technology tied together not only disparate sections in a country but also neighboring nations.

Similarly, H. Roger Grant's social history of railways in the United States is a fascinating and convincing analysis of the impact of railway technology on that nation's culture, but it refers only parenthetically to Canada and Mexico. Aside from that shortcoming, Grant paints a vivid picture of life aboard the trains for both crew and passengers, the impact of freight and passenger trains on the rural landscape, towns, and cities, and the importance of the station in rural and urban life. Last, he notes how this transportation technology left a legacy in landscape painting, fiction, poetry, and, latterly, the movies.

John H.White's essay on nineteenth-century advancements in technology and operational procedures leads the reader through the various periods of railway innovation. Beginning with the technology transfer from Great Britain to the United States, White details the various American inventions such as air brakes, steel cars, and telegraphy that made train travel so much safer than in the pioneer period, when speed and cheapness were the operating principles. In a follow-up essay, William D. Middleton chronicles developments of the mature industry during the twentieth century, noting the interdependence of rail technology and industrialization. In this era, increased speed, size, and power were the operating mantra. Lengthy tunnels, iron bridges, and viaducts reduced curvatures and grades, all adding to the railway's efficiency and speed of service. Perhaps the most profound change was the switch to diesel-electric locomotives in the late 1940s and 1950s. All these improvements, however, meant little as North Americans preferred the independence of the automobile and the mobility of highway semitrailers. While railway companies continued to implement advances in speed, power, and comfort, cars and trucks inexorably whittled away at revenues. Don Phillips tells the story of the new rail system, taking it through the period of decline beginning in 1945 to its depth in 1970 and the bankruptcy of the Penn Central and other eastern companies. The formation of Conrail, intermodal freight, and a national passenger system, as well as virtual deregulation, led to a recovery of railways as an important feature of transportation in the United States.

After these solid overviews, the encyclopedia launches into alphabetically arranged entries that include biographies of railway personalities, histories of railway companies (even relatively minor ones), technical explanations, and [End Page 473] a variety of other topics. Among the latter are women in railroading, accidents, dispatchers, and maintenance. Without quibbling about omissions, one must note that the encyclopedia is comprehensive. But a Canadianist like myself will be disappointed in the dearth of Canadian material. Therefore, it is particularly disappointing that the encyclopedia, for no apparent reason, commissioned two surveys of railways in Canada instead of one longer essay. The first, by F. H.Howard, contains a number of minor errors, such as making Donald A. Smith president of the Hudson's Bay Company when the firm had no such office. The second, by Donald Bain, although highly condensed, is more informative and surprisingly detailed. Still, Bain forgot that Palliser was not the only expedition in the late 1850s to popularize the expansive prairies and contiguous boreal forest of Rupert's Land. The so-called Hind Expedition had...


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