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A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862

Author(s):Miner, Craig H.
Reviewer(s):Malone, Laurence J.

Published by EH.NET (June 2011)

Craig H. Miner, A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862.? Lawrence, KS:? University Press of Kansas, 2010.? xvi + 325 pp.? $35 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-7006-1755-5.?

Reviewed for EH.Net by Laurence J. Malone, Department of Economics, Hartwick College.

Do we need another book on the origins of the American railroad?? The late Craig Miner, who was Willard Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University, confronts this question straight off in the preface to A Most Magnificent Machine.? His answer: ?there is room for further research addressing the interactions of railroads with the larger society? (p. viii).? Still, a well-worn subject wrapped in an advocate?s title may not inspire many of us to explore the last of his many books.? Such prejudgment would be a mistake.??

At risk of ?being regarded in some circles as a casual interloper doing literary analysis masquerading as economic history,? Miner seeks to document the ?industrial mythology? of nascent American railroads (p. xi).? And rather than lament the loss of time spent in libraries and archives, he extols the searchable digital realm for the broader access it offers to the moods, words, and fabric of daily life in the past.? Indeed, Miner claims to have examined 400,000 articles from 185 newspapers and more than 3000 books and pamphlets in preparing the book.

The most impressive results derive from the retrieval of the voices of many ordinary people.? A Most Magnificent Machine is a page-turner, as various aspects of railroad adoption are explored in fourteen chapters organized by topic.? Miner is particularly adept at capturing the evolution of public thinking regarding the introduction of the railroad in the myriad newspapers of the early Republic.? In 1835 alone, he notes, 1,265 newspapers sold some 90 million copies (p. 77).?

Colliding aspirations and financial interests between promoters of the success of canals and those touting the promise of railroads provide an engaging opening to Chapter 1, ?Baltimore Looks West.?? Not only were the groundbreaking ceremonies for the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the B&O Railroad held in Washington and Baltimore on the same day (July 4, 1828), but their routes to the west were contested at Harper?s Ferry, where the Potomac River ran too close to the cliffs to easily accommodate both a canal and a railroad bed (p. 21).? The chapter orients us well to the blend of enthusiasm and tension that characterized this epic invention and the shifting perspectives it spawned.

In fulfilling his ambitions to write a social history, Miner has collected enough pearls to sustain the interest of scholarly readers.? Chapter 5, ?Riding the Rails,? for example, is full of first-hand personal accounts on the primitive and challenging conditions endured by early travelers.? Boorish behavior was abundant, but comfort and food at stops and onboard were scarce.? Service was unreliable, fraught with unforeseen hazards, and subject to constant and unpredictable delays.? Dependable scheduling, etiquette, better-designed coaches, and a slate of amenities came soon enough, and railroad stations encouraged a new form of both functional and majestic architecture.? The chapter was timely reading during a three-hour airline delay, and I took solace in the absence of cows blocking the tarmac.

The sole new claim in the book is presented as an outcome of expanded digital access to contemporary impressions.? In the last paragraph to Chapter 8, ?The Near West,? Miner writes that ?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, or to an incompatibility of slavery with industrialization, or to a disinclination to develop or live in cities.? It saw a way to build railroads, advance cities, and continue a slave-based cotton economy with the new technology? (p. 155).? Two pages later, to open the chapter entitled ?Southern Strategy,? Miner offers a quote from a Mississippi newspaper editor in 1835:? ?We are one of the number who cannot perceive any disadvantage resulting from running any railroad through our state, which will increase the facilities of our planters in getting their cotton to market at the cheapest rate? (p. 157).? But such evidence offered here and elsewhere to support the myth-busting effort is too anecdotal, and well-grounded work on empirical measurements for levels of railroad investment and total railroad mileage between antebellum regions is ignored.

Other chapters serve us better in capturing the dramatic social changes brought about by the railroad.? There are rich discussions on greater acceptance of credit and debt, lurid details of violent accidents on a massive scale, and the threat to ?American nativist optimism? posed by the recurrence of a second major Panic just twenty years after the first (p. 195).??

Readers will find little in A Most Magnificent Machine to alter their generalized understanding of the railroad and its consequences for the antebellum American economy.? Discoveries and rewards instead abound in the voices gathered up by Miner to illustrate the ?interaction of technology and public opinion? from an ?extensive discourse carried out through the media for many years? (p. 261).

Laurence J. Malone ( is Professor of Economics at Hartwick College.? He is the author of Opening the West: Federal Internal Improvements before 1860.

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Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century