The Transcontinental Travesty
What Gilded Age railroad-building frenzy reveals about American greed.
White ends his book with this judgment: "The issue is not whether railroads should have been built. The issue is whether they should have been built when and where they were built. And to these questions the answer seems no." But would a delay of a few decades have really mattered? Would it have brought a different group of people into power? Would the goal of civilizing the West have been more humane, environmentally restrained, or economically sensible? Perhaps. This book convinces me that the railroads helped create both "dumb growth and environmental catastrophe." A greater capacity for delay and restraint might have moderated both outcomes. But still we are left with the conundrum of modernity: Who is both smart and decent enough to be in charge of the enormous powers we have unleashed on the earth? I don't have much confidence in businessmen, but neither do I have confidence in engineers, workers, or college professors. Least of all do I have confidence in the state when it begins to subsidize and promote whatever entrepreneurs want to do.
Correction, June 6, 2011: The article originally misidentified the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Donald Worster is Hall distinguished professor of American history at the University of Kansas and the author most recently of A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir.