Title Reviewed:
American Railroads

Author Reviewed:
John F. Stover

Clifton J. Phillips


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 57, Issue 3, pp 262-263

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Railroads. By John F. Stover. Chicago History of American Civilization. Edited by Daniel J. Boorstin. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961. Pp. xiv, 302. Illustrations, maps, chart, chronology, suggested reading, index. $5.00.)

This is a welcome addition to the topical group of books in the set of forty-odd volumes being published in the Chicago History of American Civilization series. Such topical studies as this provide the weft for the warp of the chronological volumes. John R. Stover's subject has special relevance because it fits a dramatic framework—the cycle of rise, maturity, and decline of the American railroad empire. He sees the 130 years of the development of railroads in this country as falling generally into three well-defined eras: (1) the first generation from the beginnings in Baltimore in 1830 to the important role of railroads in the Civil War; (2) the half-century after Appomattox, during which a great national rail network was created and finally subjected to close governmental controls in the Progressive era of the early twentieth century; (3) the decades since World War I, a troubled period full of new problems and new competition and presenting the railroads with an uncertain future. Within the compass of 260 pages of text the author covers briefly but clearly such matters as technical improvements, financial corruption in the post Civil War period, regulatory legislation, and wartime accomplishments. He does a good job not only in describing the growth of railroad transportation in the United States but also in relating it to the main trends of American social and economic history.

In so short a volume, however, some questions must be passed over lightly. This is apparently the case with the part played by organized labor in the railroad story. Aside from brief mention of the year of violence in 1877 and Debs and the Pullman strike of 1894, the book contains little information about the organization and early struggles of the railroad workers' brotherhoods and other unions. Yet the author has a good deal to say about such modern labor abuses as "feather-bedding" and their effects upon railroad decline. As the editor of the series writes in the Preface, the Age of the Railroad has its romantic element, but in American Railroads most of this is lost in the rapid pace of the narrative and beneath the heavy but probably necessary burden of statistics—trackage and capitalization figures, freight and passenger rates, number of employees—embedded in the prose of many of its pages. But all in all, Stover has accomplished much in so small a space. The story of American railroading as he tells it has continuity, breadth, and direction. Moreover, he obviously believes in railroads. His last chapter is both a good account of present difficulties and a strong plea for a "healthy, stabilized, and prosperous" American railroad system in the future. In his conclusion he argues persuasively that the drama of the railroads' rise and decline need not become decline and fall.

Clifton J. Phillips, DePauw University

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.