Today's Reading

In the ensuing decades, the railroads would visit upon America violent clashes among powerful entrepreneurs fighting for the prize of monopoly rights; strikes that would remake the relationship between management and labor; boom times and depressions; and stock market frenzies, panics, and crashes. Investors would be rooked, whole communities defrauded, tycoons created and others bankrupted, family fortunes established for generations and others destroyed by a single heir's folly. Cartels would be assembled and shattered, politicians suborned.

The railroads would also give American farmers and manufacturers access to lucrative new markets for their produce and goods. Hamlets would be transformed into prosperous towns, towns into thriving cities, and the vacant territories of half a continent filled with homesteaders, very like the emigrants with whom Stevenson shared his cramped traveling quarters.

It is tempting to view the railroad as an elemental, impersonal force, driving all before it. But of course it was the creation of human beings: the surveyors and engineers who mapped out the lines' routes, the laborers who cleared the terrain and laid the rails, and ultimately the business leaders whose individual personalities, ambitions, determination, and morals commanded the others' fates. The most notable among the latter group were Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, J. Pierpont Morgan, and Edward H. Harriman. Each would play his hour upon the great stage of the railroad industry, attended by a host of supporting characters. Placed end to end, so to speak, they formed a continuum that for more than four decades, from the Civil War through the first years of the twentieth century, transformed America's railroads from a patchwork of short lines waging constant self-destructive war with one another into a titanic enterprise that could justly be considered America's first big business.

Historians have considered the role of outstanding individuals in shaping the fortunes of humankind ever since Thomas Carlyle codified his great man theory in a series of 1840 lectures on heroes: "They were the leaders of men, these great ones; the modellers, patterns, and in a wide sense creators, of whatsoever the general mass of men contrived to do or to attain," he wrote.

Historians were soon engaging Carlyle's argument, debating the extent to which even the most consequential figures of an age were responsible for shaping historical events: Were they like vessels in a river, making their way under their own power; or builders bending the river to their intentions or altering its course; or merely logs following the path the waters dictated for them? Today it is acknowledged, as the philosopher Sidney Hook wrote in his 1943 book The Hero in History, that history is a "balance between the part men played and the conditioning scene which provided the materials, sometimes the rules, but never the plots of the dramas of human history." The question is where to strike the balance.

It is a question that pertains to the main figures in this book, a pageant of visionaries, speculators, bankers, and manipulators. In these pages they will be seen in their changing relationships as partners, competitors, allies, and enemies, until the two surviving players, Morgan and Harriman, confront each other in a battle of wills and capital that serves as a defining moment for the entire era, indeed, for the nineteenth century. Morgan and Harriman's ferocious two-man contest for supremacy over the railroad industry would shake the nation's financial markets, cost thousands of small investors their hard-won nest eggs, and produce dramatic, lasting changes in the relationship of business and government.

The actions of these powerful figures greatly influenced the shifting attitudes of the American public toward the railroads. At the moment of the first transcontinental railroad's completion, Americans viewed the project as an emblem of the United States' muscular capitalism and a symbol of its limitless possibilities. No other nation on earth had girded such a vast expanse with iron and steel rails; none so relied on its railroads as agents of economic growth and territorial expansion; none invited hosts of foreigners to its shores to cultivate millions of fallow acres. What struck visitors from abroad about the America emerging from the chaos of civil war was its enormous potential energy. When visitors came to take the measure of the New World, they traveled by rail to see it.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 marked a new chapter in the American narrative. Despite its label, the road did not traverse the continent, running only from the Missouri River to Sacramento, nearly a hundred miles short of the coast. But the railroad frenzy it triggered was a real phenomenon. Total rail mileage in the United States soared every decade, despite occasional recession-related slumps—from fewer than 30,000 miles in 1860, to nearly 88,000 in 1880 and 163,500 in 1890.

The defining characteristic of the railroads was their size. America's largest industrial enterprises in the 1850s, the business historian Alfred Chandler observed, were the textile mills of New England. The largest of these, the Pepperell Mills of Biddeford, Maine, had expenditures higher than $300,000 only once during that decade. In 1855, however, the cost of operating the New York & Erie Railroad reached $2.8 million. By 1862 the cost of running the Pennsylvania Railroad was $12.2 million. The Pepperell Mills employed eight hundred laborers; by the 1880s the Pennsylvania's workforce numbered fifty thousand.

Join the Library's Online Book Clubs and start receiving chapters from popular books in your daily email. Every day, Monday through Friday, we'll send you a portion of a book that takes only five minutes to read. Each Monday we begin a new book and by Friday you will have the chance to read 2 or 3 chapters, enough to know if it's a book you want to finish. You can read a wide variety of books including fiction, nonfiction, romance, business, teen and mystery books. Just give us your email address and five minutes a day, and we'll give you an exciting world of reading.

What our readers think...