The steam railroad, Albro Martin argues, was the most fundamental invention in American material life. It was so much more efficient and economical than horse-drawn wagons or canal boats that it made possible the interior settlement of the American continent away from natural waterways. The railroads were America’s first major industry, and they encouraged the development of coal, steel, grain, and livestock industries. They helped to establish such major cities as Chicago and influenced their urban design. The railroads helped the Union win the Civil War and, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, effectively united the nation for the first time. They brought the U.S. Mail to every American town and, along with the telegraph, made rapid modern communication possible.
Given the importance of American railroads, how could we have allowed them to disappear? Martin traces the economic history of American railroads from the beginnings in the 1830’s through their height during World War I to show decline thereafter. He documents the decline of the railroads through ICC overregulation, inflexible union rules, and subsidized competition by the trucking industry, which resulted in poor earnings and the eventual bankruptcy of many lines during the 1960’s. His last chapter points to the gradual resurgence of Conrail and Amtrak, along with those private lines that survived through mergers and smart management, and suggests that reorganized and deregulated railroads may again become a vigorous and profitable industry.
Albro Martin’s RAILROADS TRIUMPHANT is the definitive modern economic history of American railroading.