in collaboration with The Spatial History Project

The Reviews

Capital Tracks

September 28, 2011 - The New Republic

The scene is iconic, known to many Americans even casually acquainted with their history.  Locomotives of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads come engine grate to engine grate, separated by a mere railroad tie, at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, commemorating the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.  And there, as federal officials, other dignitaries, reporters, and a large collection of laborers look on, Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific, steps up, silver hammer in hand, to drive the last -- and this one a golden -- spike into the track, bringing to fruition an epic feat of engineering and imagination, and a proud testamnet to the nation's new industrial might and capitalist prowess.


Trains in Vain: On Richard White

August 20, 2011 - The Nation

... Railroaded, Richard White's trenchant history of the political economy of the first Gilded Age, told through a close examination of the transcontinental railroad corporations, could not be more timely.  Parts of the book read like Matt Taibbi exposé of fradulent high finance and venal politics, but the bulk of it resembles a Vanity Fair article that gasps even as it sympathizes with insiders divulging the details of how things went terribly wrong.


Off the track: 19th-century rail boom proved to be a bust for the U.S.

August 7, 2011 - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

We learned back in high school that railroads were the engines of economic growth in the United States.  Although they were often run by "rober barons," the iron horses opened the continent for settlement, developed national markets, invented corporate business practices, and advanced the commercial, industrial and social interests of the United States.  Richard White, a professor of American history at Stanford University, does not deny that railroads "eventually proved to be a good idea."  He claims however, that in the mid- and late 19th-century, they were, in almost every respect, a disaster.


Richard White's "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America"

August 5, 2011 - The Washington Post

It's hard to imagine failure succeeding so well, but there it was.  In the late 19th century, the modern American corporation arose in the form of the railroads, and a template was struck by the new financiers and entrepreneurs: Use other people's money, pocket cast as you go along, and be far out of reach by the time the collapse comes.  That's a bit of a cynical take, admittedly.  But it's also hard to refute, especially after reading "Railroaded," Richard White's detailed dissection of the rise and eventual fall of the nation's railroads.


How Robber Barons Railroaded America

July 15, 2011 - The New York Times

“Transcontinental railroads,” [White] asserts in “Railroaded,” “were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long.” This is a bold indictment, but White supports it convincingly with lavish detail and prose that swivels easily from denunciation to irony.


'Railroaded' by Richard White

June 12, 2011 - The San Francisco Chronicle
Transcontinental railroads built across the vastness of the American West have long been a symbol of all that is courageous and visionary about the United States. In little more than a generation after the completion of the first transcontinental in 1869, the Mississippi heartland was joined to the West Coast by other transcontinentals and a mind-boggling network of regional roads, branch lines and spurs.  But in "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," Stanford historian Richard White argues that far from a proud accomplishment, this infusion of transcontinental railroads was the ill-advised result of a few unscrupulous men and that every evil of Western expansion followed their tracks.

Tracks Across America

June 11, 2011 - The Wall Street Journal
Railroads were something very new, and they fascinated the people of the Victorian era. Trains were romanticized in story and song. The building of the huge transcontinental railroads in the post-Civil War era, for instance, was routinely celebrated as a great triumph, achieved by doughty heroes against daunting odds. Richard White will have none of it. His history of the how the transcontinental railroads came into being is a different and refreshing look at the men who financed and constructed these roads. But "Railroaded," as its title suggests, is also a one-sided account: Mr. White never misses a chance to point out these men's failings.

The Transcontinental Travesty: What Gilded Age railroad-building frenzy revelas about American greed.

June 6, 2011 - Slate
The corporate raider Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 film Wall Street, distilled the essential philosophy of the Reagan era, when we were supposed to get back to basic principles: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works." Although almost every ethical philosopher or religious leader of the past came out against greed as an emotion that distorts judgment and corrupts society, the Gekko-Reagan creed has usually been an easy sell in America. Running against that tradition, Richard White, in his new book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, doggedly persists in challenging the notion of greed as either rational or virtuous.

Too Big to Fail

June 5, 2011 - The Boston Globe
"Overbuilt, prone to bankruptcy and receivership, wretchedly managed, politically corrupt, environmentally harmful, and financially wasteful, these corporations nonetheless helped create a world where private success often came from luck, fortunate timing, and state intervention.  Profit arose more from financial markets and insider contracts than from..."  Can you fill in the blank here?

'Railroaded': Richard White's history of the messy, haphazard development of America's railroads

June 4, 2011 - The Seattle Times
The story of the transcontinental railroads has been told as triumph and as exploitation. Both are versions of powerful success. In "Railroaded," historian Richard White presents it as a story of messiness and failure.