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  • The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West by Ryan Dearinger
  • Carol Sheriff
The Filth of Progress: Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West
Ryan Dearinger
Oakland: University of California Press, 2016
xx + 289 pp., $65.00 (cloth); $29.95 (paper); $29.95 (e-book)

To nineteenth-century promoters of America's canals and railroads, these technological achievements would propel the United States toward its Manifest Destiny. Ryan Dearinger reminds us, however, that even as these internal improvements represented American progress, they had their "underbelly." Starting in 1825 (with the opening of New York's Erie Canal) and concluding shortly after 1869 (with the completion of the transcontinental railroad), Dearinger's The Filth of Progress "reckons with the violence and pain that permeated the lives of transportation workers, whether endured or inflicted, using their experiences to reconsider canal and railroad progress as a realm of trauma and not merely one of triumph" (7). Grueling and dangerous enterprises, transportation projects drew their workforces overwhelmingly from marginalized peoples: not only Irish and Chinese immigrants but also Mormon settlers. By focusing on both the "suffering" and "survival" (6) of these three groups, Dearinger hopes to challenge a triumphalist narrative of America's westward expansion.

Because Dearinger envisions a moving "transportation frontier," his book proceeds geographically from east to west, rather than strictly chronologically. (Thus the driving of the ceremonial "golden spike" at Promontory Point, Utah—marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad—takes place more than forty pages before the arrival of the Chinese laborers who made up the bulk of the railroad's labor force.) The book's core chapters each have dual foci, one based on geography, the other on ethnicity. They address, in turn, Irish canal diggers in Indiana; Irish canal and railroad workers in Illinois; Mormon tracklayers in Utah; and Chinese laborers along the Central Pacific, primarily in California. Tying together these four seemingly disparate topics are running discussions of contested notions of manhood, conflicts within and between ethnic groups, and workers' efforts to secure not simply better working and living conditions but also a recognition of their "patriotic" contributions.

Even as the book's organization, with its east-to-west moving frontier, is reminiscent of Frederick Jackson Turner, Dearinger distances himself from Turner. "Far from a Turnerian frontier where immigrants became Americanized," writes Dearinger, "frontiers of transportation labor witnessed the separation of unskilled transients and immigrants from this ideal, despite their engagement in work central to national development and Americanness" (15). Although Dearinger draws deeply on a variety of historiographies in framing his analysis, he positions his overall project vis-à-vis one monograph in particular: Peter Way's Common Labour: Workers and the Digging of North American [End Page 171] Canals, 1780–1860 (1993). By highlighting instances of workers' "agency" and "power," evidenced by individual as well as collective action and in the case of the Irish by voting blocs, Dearinger questions Way's emphasis on canal work's disempowering nature. And asserts that both canal and railroad workers subscribed to the allied ideology of progress. Mostly, though, Dearinger's (rightful) claims to originality rest with his book's ambitious framework, for it focuses on an array of internal improvement projects across a broad and varied western landscape.

The projects themselves created a diverse human geography. Because of the mind-numbing, backbreaking, and sometimes lethal nature of canal and railroad work, few native-born men found it attractive or worthy of republican free men. Western canal and railroad companies thus recruited a vast transnational labor force, primarily from Ireland and China (and from American internal improvement projects farther east). Despite native-born commentators' efforts to dehumanize these laborers, and despite intra- and interethnic conflicts that reinforced notions of a brutish, uncivilized workforce, transportation workers staked claims not just to their own manhood but also to a piece of American empire building. Irish workers turned to a rough masculinity to fight for better wages and working conditions, while they "labored to defend their role or niche on the canal frontier—their piece of progress and history—however fleeting it was" (55). Mormons, by making...


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