Published by EH.Net (August 2017)

Arthur Andrew Olson, III, Forging the Bee Line Railroad, 1848-1889: The Rise and Fall of the Hoosier Partisans and Cleveland Clique. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2016. xxix + 228 pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 978-1-60635-282-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Howard Brown, Department of Economics, Georgia Southern University.
The history of early railroads in the United States represents a puzzle of bewildering complexity. The historian confronts a mélange of ever shifting acronyms and a confused trail of restrictive charters, capitalizations and recapitalizations, insolvencies, lawsuits, and operating leases effectively transferring control from the nominal owners to other firms.

The motives for initiating railway development were often parochial. For instance, the rail line that is the topic of this book attempted to secure the economic centrality of Indianapolis within the state of Indiana. These autarkic yearnings were frustrated by underdeveloped condition of the American Midwest during the first half of the nineteenth century. The capital-intensive character of railways insured that capital, and ultimately the control, of these roads would be eastern. The subtitle of this book captures only the first phase of this eastward migration.

The titular Bee Line was initially a pair of roads. The first, chartered in Indiana, the Indianapolis and Bellefontaine, ran east to the Ohio line. The other, the Bellefontaine and Indiana proceeded west to the Indiana border. They met at the town of Union, which functioned as a break-bulk point. (These joints in a transportation system require a change of vehicles. In this case, breaking bulk was required since the roads operated on different gauges.)

The Ohio railroad had a further connection northeast to the Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati railroad, connecting the three Ohio metropolises. The economic logic of network transportation industries impels improving network connectivity by eliminating break-bulk points and adding nodes to the network. For this reason, the controlling interests of the CC&C Railroad sought to assert control over the Bee Line and its extensions westward to St. Louis, the keystone of central Mississippi River commerce. This imperative created the conflict between the Indiana particularists, seeking to retain local control, and the Cleveland financiers.

As is the case in military affairs, victory most often is achieved by those with the largest battalions. Since the so-called Cleveland clique had greater access to capital, they ultimately triumphed. Ironically, in the post-Civil War financial climate, the winners found themselves similarly out-gunned by a combination of eastern and European capital. Ultimately the CC&R with the addition of St. Louis, became known as the Big Four, controlled by William Vanderbilt.

The author presents this convoluted history adequately, although greater organizational clarity would have been a boon. The text is particularly good at illustrating the predatory aspects of Gilded Age capitalism. These arose from the inescapable conflict between the agents charged with the day-to-day management of these large scale enterprises and the capital-supplying principals.

The author aids the reader with brief biographical sketches of the many participants in the drama. In addition, there is a table of the hodgepodge of acronyms scattered across the pages. A timeline of significant events in the history of the Bee Line and flow charts outlining the history of consolidations are also included.

There are two final noteworthy features. The first, of greatest interest to railroad enthusiasts, is the abundant images of railroads and particularly locomotives. The feature of more general interest is the numerous maps, some specifically commissioned for this project. These maps highlight the routes and natural connections among the various participants.

In general, I believe this book is of greater interest to railroad “buffs” than to professional historians of transportation or economic historians. Indeed, the author appears to be such a railroad enthusiast who pursued this project as a retirement activity. Apparently, it was submitted as a M.A. thesis at Kent State University. Consequently, it is adequately documented and the actual historical text, as opposed to the addenda outlined previously, is brief enough for relatively quick reading.
John Howard Brown is an Associate Professor of Economics at Georgia Southern University. He discovered to his surprise after receiving his doctorate that he had become a transportation economist. He has researched and written about the economic history of transportation both recent (airline deregulation) and long past (railroad regulation).

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