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Reviewed by:
  • A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862
  • Allen W. Trelease
A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862. By H. Craig Miner (Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 2010) 325 pp. $34.95

In this account of America's first generation of railroading, Miner acknowledges the work of earlier economic historians such as Fishlow and Fogel in analyzing the early railroads' impact on the American economy.1 His own purpose is the more descriptive one of discussing their impact on Americans' lives and culture. He is concerned with popular attitudes toward the new technology, not with the technology itself. He visits all parts of the country, from New England to the South and West, yet he is highly selective within each region. South Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia stand proxy for the South; Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania for the Northeast; Illinois and Michigan for the Midwest; and Texas and California for the West. [End Page 311]

That said, Miner's focus is less geographical than it is social, cultural, and psychological. Individual chapters are devoted to the earliest railroads, their origins, construction, and impact, especially the Baltimore & Ohio and the Charleston & Hamburg: their financing; the perception of their ownership as "soulless corporations"; the reaction of passengers, ranging from euphoria to terror (a chapter entitled "Scalded by the Steam" deals explicitly with accidents); the difficulties of transit presented by the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River; the effect of the Panic of 1857; racial discrimination, both in construction and operation; and finally, the first moves toward the Pacific. The book stops in 1862, when Congress passed the bill subsidizing a transcontinental railroad.

Miner's chief sources are contemporary writings, especially newspapers, many of which have become available in digital form in recent years. He claims to have consulted about 400,000 articles in 185 distinct newspapers; it takes more than four pages in the Bibliography to list them all. Miner is acquainted with the later historical literature as well, and he refers frequently to relevant books and articles.

Despite his tapping of modern research technology, Miner's emphasis throughout the book is traditionally historical and primarily descriptive. "This book is a history, not a sociological study or a philosophical tract. . . . It is a history of the interaction of technology and public opinion" (261). Miner, however, makes judgments. He agrees with recent historians who protest that the antebellum South was not technologically backward: "The Charleston & Hamburg was one of the first railways in the country, and the Central of Georgia was one of the best managed and most profitable right up to the outbreak of the Civil War" (xv); "It is a myth of history textbooks that the South tried to ignore the new technology due to some Jeffersonian nostalgia about the primitive yeoman, to an incompatibility of slavery with industrialization, or to a disinclination to develop or live in cities. It saw a way to build railways, advance cities, and continue a slave-based cotton economy along with the new technology. In fact, the South well understood that it could no longer pursue its regional goals successfully without rail" (155). As Miner and others have shown, southern railroads depended on slave labor, both in construction and operation.

Despite a few typographical errors and puzzling geographical gaffes—for example, Taunton, Massachusetts, is placed in New Jersey (36) and seven southern states are said to border the Ohio River (161)—Miner's book is well researched, authoritative, and easy to read. In general, its findings will be familiar to students of early railroading, but it combines them into a nationwide synthesis. [End Page 312]

Allen W. Trelease
University of North Carolina, Greensboro

Footnotes

1. See Albert Fishlow, Railroads and the Transformation of the Ante-Bellum Economy (Cambridge, Mass., 1965); Robert Fogel, Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (Baltimore 1965).

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-9169
Print ISSN
0022-1953
Pages
pp. 311-312
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-06
Open Access
No
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