Much of America as we know it evolved in the 19th century, as we'll explore in a series of three conversations this week with writers who seek out new ways to understand old events.
There's no shortage of intrepid tales about the advent of the American rail system: starting in the 1860s, rail companies built one track after another, across mountains and deserts, from the Midwest to California. Brilliant engineering combined with the muscle of immigrant labor unified America — or so the story goes.
But that's not the story Richard White tells in his new book Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. White describes how the rail corporations shaped the U.S. economy as we know it today — and not entirely for the better.
"They bring about a great deal of political controversy and corruption," White tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "They yield environmental damage, they are conceptually grand, and in practice, they really amount to being disasters in many respects."
On the railroad's legacy of corruption
"It establishes a kind of networking between politics and business that persists to this day. Essentially for me, corruption is quite simple: it's the trading of public favors for private goods, and that's what happens repeatedly with the railroads and the federal government."
On the transcontinental railroads being on a whole new scale
This is the invention of the modern corporation. This is why railroads are so feared: It's the first time that Americans come face to face with a new way of organizing the economy on a scale that they had never seen before. The result of this is not just going to be political corruption but, they think, an intervention into the economic lives of ordinary Americans that frightens them."
On the Western railroads, which, more than the Eastern railroads, relied almost entirely on government funding
"Western railroads, particularly the transcontinental railroads, would not have been built without public subsidies, without the granting of land, and more important than that, loans from the federal government ... because there is no business [in the West at that time], there is absolutely no reason to build [railroads] except for political reasons and the hope that business will come.
"What we're talking about is 1,500 or more miles between the Missouri River and California, in which there are virtually no Anglo-Americans. Most railroad men look at this, including [railroad magnate Cornelius] Vanderbilt, and they want nothing to do with it."
On why the story of Grenville Dodge — the Civil War veteran and engineer who is said to have discovered the Union Pacific's key pass through the mountains — is presented somewhat less heroically in Railroaded
"He's an impressive guy and certainly he tells wonderful stories — including the story of finding that pass. I'm not the first one to point out that that pass shows up nowhere in his contemporary accounts. It's not in his diaries, it's not in his letters — it's a story that he makes up later. And that's what Grenville Dodge is very good at: making up wonderful stories about Grenville Dodge, which is not to say he's not a competent engineer.
"The problem with Grenville Dodge is that he is surprisingly competent at times and at times he represents the worst of the gilded age. He is corrupt, he's a politician, he will go out and become a lobbyist for the Union Pacific and for the Texas Pacific. What he is is very adroit at finding ways in which he can get public favors for private railroads."
On Grenville Dodge inventing some corporate lobbying techniques — manufacturing "grassroots" support that is actually "Astroturf"
"What he realizes is that lobbyists themselves have limited ability to gain what they want if they operate only in Washington, D.C. They have to appear to be channeling real public desire for whatever it is they're advocating. So what Dodge does is go back out and organize publicity campaigns, so he makes it appear that what Union Pacific wants and the Texas Pacific wants is what local people want. But all of this uproar of popular opinion has really been organized by Grenville Dodge ... this is Astroturf."
On both despising and admiring historical figures like Dodge
"It's easy when you're writing about these people to despise them, but it's also tempting to admire them. They are inventing, in many ways, our modern world, this is the first time that they're seeing many of these things — and they see them fresher than we do ... They're making it up as they go along, and I learned an awful lot from watching them do it."