Post comments on the reading, and/or on any train songs that come to mind.
The train was an amazing piece of machinery. One could say that it was the first piece of technology that launched the Industrial Revolution. It is a great representation of man’s mastery of nature. We no longer relied solely on nature in order to move from place to place. The train did not move by horses or the wind, it moved under its own power. And because of this, and the fact that it was extremely powerful and could move tons of resources, it paved the way to expansion to the West, promoting the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. It’s interesting that it reversed the order of settlement in the West. Formerly, it was farms first, then towns, then business. After the railroad, it was train stations, towns, and then farms. And the reliability of how long these rapid towns was inconsistent at best. Its intriguing how every new town thought that they were going to be the new centers of commerce in America. Some of these towns grew into Chicago, Minneapolis, Omaha, St. Lewis. However, many remained towns and many more died out. It reminds me of the Gold Rush to California. So many people got up and left everything to find a fortune there, but most ended up with nothing.
The railroad was a large step forward in transportation technology. It cost much less than a canal to build, and unlike a canal it was not as easily susceptible to the harsh winters. The railroad followed a similar narrative as the canal, it was created through the ideals of manifest destiny and it wielded the power to create towns. Railroads or in our case, light rails still hold a similar power today. When you read about the Hiawatha light rail, many lament that it is an unsuccessful line because it did not increase commerce or housing surrounding it's stations. With the near completion of the central corridor light rail, many are already singing praise. With the housing boom, there are many housing projects aiming to increase the density of living near the lightrail's stops and many proposals include a multi-purpose first floor, hopefully to increase the amount of shopping and commerce in the area. It is interesting to see that still now, railroad has the ability to invite a higher density of living and commerce to an area.
I found it interesting how, with all technologies, and especially transportation technologies, Americans thought of them as a natural channel. Everett said there are two sorts of natural channels, the ones made by God, and the ones made by man by God's gift of intelligence. I would disagree with this thought. To me, something natural is from the land, not produced by man. Of course it is natural for humans to be curious and intelligent, but the things they make are in no way natural. They thought everything they created was because of God, it was their destiny and the destiny of the land. I am wondering if they truly thought this, or if they were just saying things to manipulate the situation. I also found it interesting the way they personified technologies like the Titanic. They are putting their creations on the same level as God's creations.
The railway was a huge advancement in transportation technology. Because it was not constrained by outside influences such as weather, the railway was able to be built as a direct line to areas water transport could never reach. This created a greater expansion of civilization, as towns could be built at any stop along the way of the train. I think it is interesting that the reading states that “the natural world as God had made it was the first creation; man’s constructions were supplementary completions of the order that lay dormant within it.” The construction of the railway paved the way for a mass expansion in civilization across the United States. Although in the end this civilization was “man’s construction,” landscapes were torn through in order to complete the project. Since the landscape and trees that inhabit it were not used to build the railroad, but were simply torn down, I don’t see how this was a construction project that utilized the order that lay dormant within the Earth. However, without the construction of the railroad our society would not have been built up as fast and as efficiently to make it what it is today. It created a direct route from coast to coast, allowing people to utilize all climate types for things such as agricultural growth. This made the train a huge advancement in transporting agricultural products from one side of the country to the other. If we could grow certain foods in our own country that required warmer climates, we wouldn’t need to import these product in and therefore would make these products considerably cheaper within the States.
This quote, in my opinion,“The axe, the mill, the canal, the railroad, and the irrigation project all provided new ways for Americans to make use of ‘God’s favors.’ This was the teleology of second creation. The natural world as God had made it was the ﬁrst creation; man’s constructions were supplementary completions of the order that lay dormant within it”(154) is the central theme of this book. Nye mainly talks about the axe, the mill, the canal, and the railroad as being the main contenders to the technological development of American society. To me, reading about the railroad was the most interesting. To think that it started out as just a few miles of tracks and grew into the central channel of American life and commerce. The chapter also notes that "the railroad was not to depend upon the land, but the land upon the railroad".
As I read the second portion of chapter 7, “Let Us Conquer Space,” I was struck once more of the repetition of the supposed Manifest Destiny of expansion to the west, in this case referring to the expansion of the railroad systems across the country. I found it intriguing that with the building of the railroads, towns and civilizations would spring up, having a use and a purpose simply because the railroad was there (in a way that I suppose was similar to building towns along rivers or seaports before the new technology). The most interesting part of this phenomena was that the railroad had such extensive power in deciding where power in the form of towns and cities would be held, with so much help from the government in the form of 131 million acres (pg 163). People seemed to simply accept that these immensely rich transportation corporations should have the power to go where they pleased and take the land that they pleased; Nye writes “Subsequently, town planning was accepted as a part of railroad building, and virtually all western lines founded towns as well as selling land that had been granted to them by the state and federal government” (163).
After this in the chapter, phrases like “urban dominance” (166), “convulsive growth” (168), “not a swindle, but a mania” (169), and “incontestable” (169) appeared. I began to feel disturbed by the sense of entitlement and power that these progress makers held; I was angry but not surprised to read lines like “the railroad agents ‘manifested an avarice for donations of lands and lots to themselves… If the owners of any village refused to comply, they could run the cars by, establish the station on the bare prairies beyond, and kill the town by establishing a new one’” (169). Nye also finished the chapter with the line “The industrial sublime effaced the details of individual lives” (173). This is understandable to some extent. However, it is easy to see how the railroads became powerful monopolies, bullying for power and money with little care for the common citizen, even as they touted the role as working to unite the nation as a more moral, evolved nation.
In some ways, this chapter reminded me of the “eminent domain” that cities hold today.
Creation of new technology as being a part of some divine plan was striking to me within this excerpt. Civilized man’s natural course being to create such grandiose things as trains while savage’s natural course is to stick to rivers and horses is almost laughable. This concept of civilized is one that I am unsure I will ever be able to grasp. How the way that one people can live is seen as civilized and the way another people live as savage makes me wonder who defines this and what they are basing this distinction from. The opening of the railways made this mean even more. As these settlers became more and more ‘civilized’ through technology, the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ became all the more clear. Divinity being found in the advancement of technology is intriguing and feels like a justification to me. A justification for what, I am unsure. Possibly a justification for all that this furthering of technology meant for the people here before the settlers and their technologies.
What struck me most about Nye’s chapter on the railroad was how optimistic Americans of the mid-to-late 1800’s were about trains and what they meant for the economy, transportation, and general way of life. The railroad was seen as a natural progression of America’s progress towards fulfilling its destiny as the world’s greatest nation. Everything became about the railroad: towns were built along the tracks, economic centers sprang up because the railroad brought commerce with it, populations boomed in areas where railroads had hubs.
While it would have been hard to fault the citizens of the time for their optimism and grand ideas for the future of the country that the railroad had enabled, it was hard not to read the chapter with an eye towards the costs of all this expansion, both to nature and other people groups such as Native Americans. I believe Nye alludes to this at the end of the chapter, saying there were “a great many counter-narratives” to the railroad story (173). Clearly, however, among many Americans, the dominant belief was that the railroad was not only a natural step in the process of expansion, but also a God-given and ordained step as well.
I thought the most moving sentence in the reading was that of the canal and the railway as a "cause and civilization an automatic effect," with the exploration and expansion brought about by these seen as a divine right of the settlers of America.
The reason this struck me was my reflections on the downnfall of the indian nations soon after this time through the implemenation of the railroads as well as, to an extent, the bull runs from the north to the south and vice versa.
"There are two kinds of natural channels -- one sort made directly by the hand which made the world; the other, constructe by man, i nthe intelligent excercise of the powers which his creator has given to him."
Laying claim to nature, this moulding of the world to suit the growing needs of civilization, this was directly at odds with the native peoples in the west, and the fact that this moulding was seen as a natural expansion of the divine right of the settlers shows the realtionship of the time between the natives and those new explorers.
The optimism of the Americans and their right to spread through the continent was a great part of the culture of the time, but I believe it is important to keep one's mind on all sections of a story, including those counternarratives of the railways, like the indians and the restrictions the rail put on where they could travel and where they could hunt.
When new forms of travel, especially the railroad, came about, the technology both shrunk distances and defined an era of massive growth and change throughout the United States. The power of the railroad companies to determine who got the land, and making large profits off of it, after it being given to them by the government is rather astonishing. Towns that popped up around the railway were only made viable through the train stops. O, what they could bring at these stops as well. Essentially pre-fabricated homes, shops, opera houses, etc. This led to towns and cities of tremendous potential which were not all able to thrive or necessarily survive. It was also a unique thought that the tools humans had made and the progression towards more mobility and prosperity was only a "natural" evolution. I see how one could justify or have come up with such a thought, yet I am unsure that it would have crossed my mind in this way.
What is it about the railroad that keeps popular in music over 100 years after its invention? Is it nostalgia? Romance? Freedom? As they say in bluegrass, maybe it is the high lonesome sound - the sound of the wailing harmonica often used to represent the steam whistle.
Johnny Cash has several railroad themed songs including Folsom Prison Blues. In that song, the railroad represents the freedom that the prisoners can't have. The sound of the train is tortuous, as the prisoners imagine the food, and drink and freedom of the high-class passengers.
Orange Blossom Special has a great harmonic solo (which I never realized was done with two harmonics until I saw the video) and is also about the freedom to move. It seems more meaningful as he sings it to prisoners who would love to travel to beaches of California or Florida
Songs like Wabash Cannonball, romanticize the railroad - the "long and the tall" train that connects the north and south, the woodlands of the Midwest and "the shore" of the costal states It illustrates the national reach of the railroad and how admired it is for its ability to connect the country.
The point about the train companies basically becoming city planning departments was very interesting.
It shows that people realized the power of the new form of travel to settle the rest of the country. The reading said that early into the development of the rail system in America people began to predict that Chicago would be the next metropolitan city, and we know now that they were completely correct. One part that was a little disheartening, though, is the fact that our rail systems were costing on average 50% less than the British rail systems, I feel like this is only due to the type of labor we chose to use to build our rail lines, specifically the transcontinental railroad.
This page contains a single entry by Capper Nichols published on February 6, 2013 10:48 AM.
America as Second Creation - David Nye: chapter 7 (147-152); Life on the Mississippi - Mark Twain: chapters 6, 8, 12 was the previous entry in this blog.
America as Second Creation - David Nye: chapter 8; John Henry; Central Corridor Light Rail is the next entry in this blog.
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