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“The Story of the Western Railroads: From 1852 through the Reign of the Giants,” by Robert Edgar Riegel, University of Nebraska Press, reprint of the Macmillan edition of 1926. This 345-page paperback is a classic telling the story of western railroads until the arrival of the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Eastern railroads built mostly through populated territory and had immediate traffic. Western railroads built through uninhabited territory. They were pioneer railroads with few prospects of quick earnings. Moreover the routes lacked funds for construction. Money had to come from Eastern financial centers or even Europe. But who would find the risks acceptable? What incentives were needed? Federal land grants were a major step forward. States also used their credit worthiness to guarantee railroad bonds. And stock and bonds were sold to all comers–counties, cities, and landowners who were promised increasing value. Many railroad securities were sold at deep discounts. That resulted in overcapitalized railroads and added to interest costs.

Senator Stephen Douglas, best known for the Lincoln-Douglas debates, secured the first land grant for the Illinois Central Railroad in 1850. Railroads received alternating sections of land usually within five miles of the route. Railroads promoted the land heavily offering excursions, publishing brochures, and even opening land offices in Europe.

The book begins with a brief history of railroads dating from 1827 and the Baltimore & Ohio. The idea of a transcontinental railroad began in the 1840s as the US signed a trade agreement with China; then Commodore Perry’s expedition to Japan and the gold rush in California. The Overland Mail and the Pony Express followed as did the transcontinental telegraph and a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama in 1855 with Pacific Mail Steamships connecting on both sides. Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s first senator, was a strong advocate of a railroad constructed by the federal government financed by the sale of federal lands.

From the days of steamships and western trails, Missouri was the best developed of the states west of the Mississippi. The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad was the first completed to the Missouri River in 1859. It received land grants but was funded by Chicago’s railroad backers. The need for railroads was discussed in railroad conventions as early as 1845, but no funding was forthcoming. Transcontinental routes were controversial. The south favored southern routes; Chicago interests favored northern routes. The issue was decided after the South seceded. Omaha was selected as the start. Four railroads built across Iowa connecting with Chicago. They shared traffic in the Iowa Pool.

The Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, was constructed by the Union Pacific from Omaha and the Central Pacific from California. The Union Pacific resulted in the Credit Mobilier scandal. The railroad signed construction contacts with a company owned mostly by insiders. It was guaranteed profits while the railroad struggled. The Central Pacific used Chinese workers to build its portion. Central Pacific undertook domination of railroading in California and invested in construction of the Southern Pacific all the way to New Orleans.

The book includes major railroad executives. Jay Gould was known as a robber baron. He took control of the Union Pacific in 1873 and later the Missouri Pacific, the Wabash, the Texas and Pacific, the MKT, and the Denver and Rio Grand. Missouri Pacific was his signature road. He assembled the Wabash line connecting Kansas City with Ft. Wayne and points east. The line is still in use avoiding congestion in Chicago. After his death in 1892, his railroads went to his heirs, who soon lost control.

James F. Joy of Detroit was an early force in railroading beginning as a lawyer for the Michigan Central. He became President of the Michigan Central Railroad, had an interest in the New York Central, and controlled the Chicago Burlington and Quincy giving connections with the Union Pacific stretching all the way to New York City. He also built south for the Gulf. The Joy system disintegrated in the Panic of 1873.

The Southern Pacific and Central Pacific lines were led by CP Huntington. He was part of the Big Four (with Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins) that built the Central Pacific in 1861. He lived in Washington, DC, where he was an active lobbyist for the railroads. He was also built railroads in Virginia. He died in 1901

James J. Hill came to railroading after the Panic of 1873. With backers, he gained control of the Great Northern and later the Northern Pacific, the two northern transcontinental routes. He acquired the Burlington, but was forced to divest under the Sherman Antitrust Act. He died in 1916.

EH Harriman was another major player. He took control of the Illinois Central in 1883. In 1897, he bought the Union Pacific. After the death of Huntington, he acquired the Southern Pacific and the Central Pacific.

Henry Villard played a role in Oregon railroads and in 1881 took control of the Northern Pacific. He continued until the Panic of 1893. Then JP Morgan headed a reorganization that led to a deal with James J. Hill. Villard had many other investments including Edison General Electric where he was president.

The Santa Fe Railroad was originally chartered by CK Holliday to connect Atchison and Topeka Kansas following the route of the Santa Fe trail in 1859. It prospered shipping cattle from Texas. It extended its lines westward forming one of the southern routes to the West coast. A major expansion was the main line from Kansas City to Chicago (actually Streeter, IL) completed in 1888. It remains a major carrier into Chicago from the west.

The book describes the intense competition between railroads of the west. Building into competitors territories, or out maneuvering others to divert traffic was typical. Efforts to maintain rates used pools and similar agreements, but they often failed. Meanwhile, railroads charged all the market would bear. Competition between major cities often meant lower fares for the full distance than paid by farmers or ranchers along the line. Railroads serving agricultural areas were known as granger lines. Initially land owners saw the railroads as essential to their future, but high rates caused opposition known as the granger movement. In 1887, the Interstate Commerce Commission was created to regulate rates.

The cattle business is described in some detail. High beef prices encouraged shipping long horns from Texas. They were cross bred with Herefords to improve the breed. Cattle were driven the long drive from Texas in Spring, fattened on grasslands in Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, and then shipped to market the following Spring. Chicago and Kansas City were the major packing centers. Refrigeration and canning allowed further distribution. Most western roads participated in the business. As the land developed and barbed wire fences went up, the long drive cattle ended in about 1885.

Chapters describe the development of unions and railroad equipment. Standard time arose from scheduling difficulties when every railroad had its own time usually from a solar time piece somewhere along its line. Time varied from road to road. Railroad managers addressed the issue in 1872. Time zones were defined by the 75, 90, 105, and 120 meridians with time changes halfway between them. The system was approved by Congress only in 1918, when they adopted daylight saving time. The first Pullman car arrived in 1859; the first postal car in 1867. The first refrigerated shipment was in 1872. The Westinghouse airbrake was adopted in 1872. Automatic couplers were approved in 1893.

This is a comprehensive, detailed telling of the story of western railroads. Extensive bibliography. Index.
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