Book and exhibit detail how the railroads made the West
A new book and exhibit, "The West The Railroads Made," explain how a transportation revolution configured not just the landscape, but the very mindset of the American West.
Seattle Times book critic
"The West the Railroads Made"Tuesdays-Sundays through Jan. 24 (closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day), 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma; $8 adults, $7 seniors, $6 students, free for children 5 and under; free to everyone 5-8 p.m. Thursdays (888-238-4373 or www.washingtonhistory.org).
Anyone who's taken a ride on Amtrak lately is aware of a Certain Insurmountable Truth:
Freight trains rule the tracks — especially in the West.
They own the rails and usually have priority over passenger trains. With the recent volatility in oil prices, transportation of goods by rail will likely only rise.
At the same time, in the last few decades, cities up and down the West Coast have re-embraced the notion of commuter-rail service, from San Diego's Tijuana Trolley to Vancouver's Sky Train. Towns that once scrapped their trolley tracks (Los Angeles its Red Car, Seattle its Interurban) are now scrambling to create rail-passenger networks.
Are we entering a new age of clicketyclack?
But as Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda reveal in their book, "The West the Railroads Made" (Washington State Historical Society/University of Washington Press, 229 pp., $39.95), the age has always been "new." And over the last 150 years it has constantly reshaped our notions of landscape, time and distance, culminating in "an engineered West, a place as complex as any cluster of cities and factories."
Schwantes and Ronda's splendid volume, beautifully written and lavishly illustrated, is a companion piece to an exhibition of the same name now on display at the Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma.
In keeping with the spirit of the book, I took the Coast Starlight to Tacoma to get a glimpse of the show. The exhibit is well-designed and informative, and it highlights one aspect of the American West's history that gets only brief mention in the book: the existence of the 13-volume Pacific Railroad Surveys from the 1850s, commissioned by Congress to establish the best east-west route across the American continent.
Four of the volumes are on display under glass at the museum, and they're tantalizing: hefty brown tomes open to pages that let you sample the prose and the engraved plates of this "veritable encyclopedia of the West." Of special note: an Audubon-worthy illustration of an Arctic Blue-Bird that makes you wonder what else is contained in this study of Western fauna, flora, geography and Native American culture. The museum's permanent collection also offers pertinent rail-history information. And kids will enjoy the model-railroad exhibit.
Still, for readers wanting a detailed overview of how the construction of a coast-to-coast rail network altered every aspect of life in the West, the book is the place to go.
The Pacific Northwest figures prominently in "The West the Railroads Made," perhaps because co-author Schwantes ("Railroad Signatures across the Pacific Northwest") has a longtime association with the region. But it also has much to do with "a long-distance love affair" between Saint Louis and the Pacific Northwest that lasted a full half-century after the Lewis & Clark expedition of 1804-06.
As the authors note, "Missourians came to make up a preponderance of first settlers in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. When pioneer residents of the Pacific Northwest received the latest news from the East, it usually arrived by way of Saint Louis."
Navigable waterways — the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Ohio — were the key to Saint Louis' status as a hub of transportation and commerce, and "The West the Railroads Made" is, in part, the story of how the city dropped the ball by underestimating the importance of railroad transportation and thus ceding hub status to Chicago.
This tale of rival cities constitutes only one strand of the book. The rail-induced transformation of the very fabric of existence is another.
Henry David Thoreau was one of the earliest observers to note the changes in the rhythms of American life triggered by the shift from stagecoach to rail transportation: "Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?"
Rail travel didn't just speed things up; it codified time and industrial standards in unprecedented ways. Early in the railroad age, each town and city had its own time zone — a system that might work in the age of stagecoach transportation, but became untenable in the rail era.
Still, the creation of four standard time zones across the U.S. brought complaints.
"The sun is no longer to boss the job," a writer for the Indianapolis Daily Sentinel fumed. "People — 55,000,000 people — must eat, sleep and work as well as travel by railroad time."
Standardization didn't just apply to time zones. "The railroad, with its standard track gauge, required goods of common sizes," the authors explain. "At the simplest level, that meant wrenches that fit bolt heads, steam gauges that were all marked in the same scale, and rails of predictable length and weight."
The resulting conformity of standards extended beyond railroad technology to human behavior: "Freewheeling individuals temperamentally unable to follow rules and orders found no place among the employees of a modern railroad."
While technological advances pushed the whole country toward a stricter uniformity of hardware and on-the-job conduct, they also revealed a vast difference between what railroads meant for the Eastern U.S. and what they meant for the West: "Eastern railroads could exploit producers and markets already in existence. Western railroads first had to build into the region and then develop those markets and centers of production."
Some Easterners were skeptical of expanding the rail network westward, including Sen. Daniel Webster, who in 1843 asked his colleagues, "What do you want of that vast and worthless area, that region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirling winds, of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?"
Webster, needless to say, did not prevail. And the Western promoters who succeeded him erred in the other direction, perpetrating "rain follows the plough" myths about semiarid regions, and otherwise misrepresenting the farming possibilities of sections of the West that couldn't possibly sustain traditional agriculture.
Still, in some places — including the Puget Sound region and the Yakima Valley — the hype had substance behind it. Upon being linked by rail to the outer world, the Yakima Valley was transformed from a "cattle paradise" to a major producer of "hops, apples, and numerous other kinds of fruit and grain to be hauled by train to eastern markets, like the Saint Louis breweries."
Yakima experienced another instance of railroad power in the 1880s, after it refused to donate land for a train station to the Northern Pacific. The railroad company simply built its station north of town, where, eventually, "many chastened townspeople humbly chose to physically relocate their homes and commercial buildings."
Railroad power altered the fates of Seattle and Tacoma as well: "The developing ports of Puget Sound had for years envied Portland, a city seemingly favored by nature and an extensive system of good river highways that brought prosperity with every boat that arrived or left its wharves." But the building of a railroad bridge across the Columbia River at Pasco in the 1880s, Schwantes and Ronda remark, "favored upstarts Tacoma and Seattle over river-oriented Portland."
Both the book and the exhibit highlight the winners and the losers in this expansion game. Native Americans, unsurprisingly, were victims of U.S. giveaways of their land. ("Uncle Sam Will Give You a Home in the Flathead Indian Reservation, Western Montana," one promotional brochure read.) Employment opportunities attracted a wide ethnic-racial range of workers to the region, but there were backlashes — notably the anti-Chinese riots of the 1880s.
The peak for railroads came in the 1920s. Decline started by the next decade, with the rise in automobile ownership, as well as the railroads' own overbuilding of transcontinental routes, which left few in any position to make a profit.
That decline may now be reversing itself, both on the freight and passenger front. Coming home, I caught the Sounder — our region's latest venture in rail transportation, pending the opening of our light-rail system next year. The 4:45 from Tacoma to Seattle wasn't crowded, but the trains heading south were packed with commuters heading home from their workday in Seattle.
And with the recent passage of Proposition 1's plan to expand our light-rail system to Lynnwood, Federal Way and the Eastside, we can look forward to a further reshaping of the transportation dynamics of our region.
Clicketyclack ... clicketyclack ... clicketyclack ... .
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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