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Reviewed by:
  • The West the Railroads Made
  • Michael F. Magliari (bio)
The West the Railroads Made. By Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008. Pp. xxii+229. $39.95.

This lavishly appointed book showcases the fabulously rich holdings of the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma and the John W. Barriger III National Railroad Library housed within the St. Louis Mercantile Library. As Carlos Schwantes points out in the preface, archivists at both institutions “preside over vast and incredibly valuable collections of railroad ephemera,” collections that provide most of the 228 images featured in The West the RailroadsMade, which originated as a companion piece to an exhibition curated by the authors.

Although they do not blaze any new interpretive trails in their five chapter text, Schwantes and James P. Ronda do a fine job of retelling a familiar saga that commemorates the revolutionary impacts of railroad technology on the trans-Mississippi West between 1850 and 1920. Summoning Ralph Waldo Emerson’s vivid metaphor of the railroad as a wondrous “magician’s rod,” they emphasize the dramatic and transformative power of the railroads in driving, and shaping, the American conquest, settlement, and economic development of the frontier West. In particular, they stress the ability of the railroad to “annihilate time and distance” to the point that the transcontinentals were able to divide the entire nation into [End Page 220] time zones and impose standard time on the United States in 1883. Meanwhile, the many material impacts of railroad technology are underscored by the authors’ focus on the swift proliferation throughout the West of new “railroad landscapes” created by the laying of tracks, the boring of tunnels, and the erection of bridges, depots, and roundhouses.

Not surprisingly, given the concerns of the Washington State History Museum and the St. Louis Mercantile Library, Schwantes and Ronda devote considerable attention to the railroad’s rapid eclipse of inland navigation as the primary mode of commercial transport. The triumph of the iron horse over the celebrated river steamboat profoundly altered and expanded the transportation geography of the West, favoring newly emerging railroad hubs like Chicago and Seattle over older port cities like Saint Louis and Portland, and providing sharp reminders that technological progress had its victims as well as its beneficiaries. The Great Plains buffalo and the Native American tribes who hunted them did not fare so well in the golden age of railroad expansion. Still, despite the occasional quote from Henry George and other nineteenth-century critics of the railroads, the tone of The West the Railroads Made remains overwhelmingly positive, offering an unabashed paean to the iron horse in its prime.

The celebratory notes sounded by the text are amplified by the treasure trove of magnificent illustrations. Attractively arranged on nearly every page of the notes, bibliography, and index as well as the main narrative, the images (nearly half in color) include some 32 maps, 33 photos, and several paintings by well-known western artists such as Karl Bodmer, George Caleb Bingham, and Theodore Kaufmann. Even more striking are the illustrations reproduced from various promotional materials created by the railroads themselves, particularly the Great Northern. Drawn from posters, brochures, catalogs, pamphlets, timetables, and other railroad ephemera, these images demonstrate the tremendous investment made by railroad corporations in advertising their trains and the regions they served. One cannot help but admire the skill of the anonymous artists, and it is regrettable that Schwantes and Ronda do not devote any portion of their story to the people who generated this impressive outpouring of commercial artwork.

Despite this unfortunate omission, The West the Railroads Made is a delightful read and a valuable resource that belongs in the personal libraries of railroad aficionados everywhere, scholars and buffs alike. [End Page 221]

Michael F. Magliari

Dr. Magliari is professor of history at California State University, Chico, where he teaches public history and the history of California and the American West.



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