Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929

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9781566631389: Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929
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How the railroads transformed American life between 1829 and 1929, and why the cost of their achievements was so damaging to the social and economic life of the nation. A quite wonderful book...richly textured and intellectually stimulating. ―Elizabeth Blackmar, Columbia University. Selected by Choice as an outstanding book for 1997.

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The progress represented by the railroad is often taken as an entirely positive trend in American history, but in Passage to Union, historian Sarah H. Gordon shows how the railroad's transformation of American life also exacted some great costs. She pays equal attention to technology and law, noting how the land to be crossed by the railroads all belonged to someone else; the brilliant engineering feats of early tracklaying were thus made possible in part by skillful railroad lawyers such as Abraham Lincoln. Passage to Union follows the story of American railroading from the time when the American West was untouched by tracks and the Southern states stubbornly tried to resist their entry to the decades when Pullman travel tied the nation together for good.

Besides detailing the great legal and economic themes of the railroad revolution, Gordon also pays attention to how train travel affected ordinary people, succeeding in making the great national saga of railroads a very human story. Later chapters of the book relate the details of rail travel in the latter half of the 19th century; the design of rail cars, new systems of ticketing, and even the institution of modern luggage all made rail travel a commonplace component of American life. --Robert McNamara

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In Passage to Union, Sarah Gordon has written a richly informed narrative history of the growth of the railroads, an American icon. But her conclusions are surprising. Where the railroads and their entrepreneurs are ordinarily celebrated for their accomplishments, Ms. Gordon finds that the cost of their achievements was high. Conflicts of interest - at local, state, and regional levels - characterized railroad growth at every stage. Despite the stated aims of government and the railroad corporations to promote settlement and commerce, Ms. Gordon shows that the states lost control of these enterprises and lost the economic benefits of their traffic. Smaller towns withered as people and money flowed to larger cities. By 1900 the union that had emerged reflected the worst fears of railroad critics. The South and West had been settled, but wealth had flowed so heavily to the cities that rural life had lost its attraction. Passage to Union is compelling reading because Ms. Gordon has drawn from diaries, memoirs, literature, advertisements, newspapers and magazines, public records, and railroad history to construct her narrative. The impact of the railroads on people and their communities is powerfully illustrated in this absorbing story of apparent triumph and real loss.

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