I was surprised to see that at the time of their construction, trains were being scrutinized. For the way that they were constructed and what the effects on the environment were from trains. I wouldn't have expected for there to be any negative thoughts around trains or steamboats, since the people of the time would have been blinded by the progressive effects that these new transportation's had on society. The attention to the well-being of the natural world was surprising to me as well. This concern for the environment always feels like such a new idea that comes from our modern age, but after these new technologies were more commonly seen, the concern for their affects on the environment were being noticed. The more apparent the technology, the more scrutiny it was under. This is something that I believe we can see today as well. The more something is used, the more we depend on it, the more we worry about it.
David Nye illuminated many consequences of westward expansion in the 8th chapter of America as Second Creation . Most of the ill effects of the growth seemed to stem from the corporations that controlled the railway system, and their thirst for profits at the expense of the people they were trying to convince to settle the land they drove through. It was interesting to learn that even back in the early capitalist culture collusion was common practice. The rail companies created the myth that they were the only means west, and then convince the people that the west was the best place to be as well. All of the railways power over the consumer seemed to be derived from the fact that the government had given them too much land, and did not tell them how to use it properly. The companies then took advantage of this and stripped the land of the recourse and used them for themselves, when they truly belonged to the people of the area. The companies themselves also took advantage of the government by applying to build railroads just to obtain the wholesale land and then sell it at a mark up, also further hurting the settlers. Overall I agree with George's assessment, that the railways created the myth that they were needed for settlement because throughout history we have been able to settle all environments without them before, so why was the 19th century any different?
I enjoyed watching the John Henry clips on Youtube, as it’s always interesting to see Disney’s take on different periods of history and people groups. What struck me in particular in this short film was the rivalry given between men working with/for machines and machines replacing the work of men. All the men were working their hardest to keep the progress of the railroad going while because they had a chance to work and gain a reward from it. Perhaps they didn’t really consider what it would mean to advance that kind of technology, and were simply working hard in order to gain that prize of land at the end of it all. However, the big dramatic moment comes when an electric hammer (which has somewhat of the same shape of an actual train) shows up to replace the labor of the men, thus forfeiting their claim to the land. While this wordless, faceless machine is a good representation of the swindling that occurred within railroad companies, it is also an embodiment of the struggle between men working with machines and fighting against them as they replace skilled and unskilled labor. It’s obvious in the film that we are to root for John Henry and the hardworking skills of men, but aren’t they in fact working for the advancement of a technology that probably put other men of different transportation work out of jobs, or at least reduced the need for certain human skills?
What I found particularly interesting about this chapter was how politicized the counter narrative was. In this counter narrative, railroads were seen as a force of power and control. The book even goes so far as to say "The power of railroads began to resemble that of an absolute monarch". Among the many complaints were: railroads were extremely dangerous and there was a lack of safety standards, they were viewed as entities which ripped apart neighborhoods and cities, and more so, they stripped land from homesteaders after they had improved the land.
The reason for this lack of regulation was the nature of the technology and America's founding. America was founded in opposition to England's strong central government. It was important that States had their own rights and that the governing authority of the central government remain relatively weak. Because railroads traveled interstate it posed the dilemma of individual state rights versus central governing authority. Ironically, I believe the railroads gained such power and authority because the central government was afraid to exercise its own power.
The counter narrative to the railroad was really interesting, and some of the ideas behind it are still relevant today. The railroad was a huge invention, and a really exciting thing for people. It created jobs, towns and a way of transportation. Nye said in a couple of years it was already being scrutinized, which seemed quite early to me. The attacks only increased as the railroads became more familiar, which is really true today. At first, the smoke wasn't even noticed, but after a while, railroads were being attacked for environmental reasons. I'm sure the same thing happened with the automobile. It's such an exciting thing, but now there are so many, and pollution is a concern. I also liked how Nye pointed out the writers' perspectives, that they were "aware of the railroad's intrusion into the natural world." They recognized the foundation story for what it was, but did not celebrate it. This goes back to our technologies today. Everything has good and bad aspects, but you have to ask yourself if the good is outweighing the bad.
While reading Chapter 8 of America as Second Creation, I found the section on world’s fair exhibits (pp. 201-202) to be particularly interesting. Nye lists the fairs of 1876, 1894, 1904, and 1915 as ones where the railroad was a prominent fixture. Yet by 1939, Nye writes, “the future belonged to the automobile and the airplane, while the railroad belonged increasingly belonged to the past. With each passing exposition, the railroad was more likely to be imagined as an earlier stage in transportation that began with the chariot and ended with rockets to the stars” (202). It is amazing to think about how, basically in one hundred years, the train went from something seen as vital to expansion and prosperity to a quaint relic of the past.
I understand that technology advances, things speed up, processes become more efficient, but at the same time, I wonder where this advancement ends. Is there such an endpoint? We are entering a time where passenger space travel is possible (for those rich enough to secure a ticket). Will this be the “final frontier” of transportation? Will we ever reach a point where we say, “This mode of transportation is fast enough” or “This technology may be superior, but the costs to human life and the environment are too great to pursue it”? It is a rather unsettling feeling to think that the answer might be “No, it is not good enough. We must push forward.”
It seems only natural that with a technology as big as the locomotive train there would certainly be those who are opposed to it. But there is credible reason behind the dissatisfaction. The locomotive companies were tyrants who could bully landowners and politicians into complying with their motives. The companies seem like any other big corporation throughout history. They could be compared to big business today. They could also be compared to the kings of the Middle Ages. Instead of a king, a company is oppressing the people, from the serfs who build the railroad to the other knights who get in its way. They treated those who worked for the railroad almost like slaves, and the workers thus became immoral, vulgar, and rowdy. They displaced millions of Native Americans, killing off their precious buffalo because they got in the way. They were also careless in terms of safety. It’s amazing how many people died building the railroad as well as in train wrecks. The train was a great invention that helped develop America as a nation. But it also had a great cost to the environment, Native Americans, as well as American settlers.
The change in knowledge and priorities is an interesting subject to observe throughout the nineteenth century.
From the late 18th and early 19th where the settlers saw the United States as a land of unlimited bounty and resources, where we could expand almost endlessly and use the environment to our content, to having the perservation of the environment, or at least the halting of overly destructive practices, are seen in the latter half of the century. This new ideal of nature preservation is seen arising as an argument against the newly expanding railroads, the noise pollution it brought to cities.
We see the natural and technological world collide in this period, when we see the great advancement of factories, industry, and of course trains. Though technology was embraced, it began to be seen with less naivety and more skepticism.
In chapter 8, Nye's talks about how as early as 1886 railroads and canals were loosing their luster. About how after each completed line or canal, there would be a celebration. "But after a few years, boats and cars no longer amazed and some began to find then squalid."
This made me wonder at the future success of the light rail expansion into St Paul. I have a house off Uniersity Avenue and I was very excited to see the rail come to that area. I lived in Chicago and know how useful trains can be once they've become part of the city culture. I know from experience how useful it is to take a train to the airport, to get a ride home after a night out, or to be able to avoid the expense of parking. The 'L' and metro trains are a part of Chicago culture. After it looses its luster, I wonder how the lightrail will fare if St Paul dosent' adopt a rail culture.
I found that the counter-narratives were some things that I had not thought about. Most of the concerns never seem to get touched on in history class or even in other literature that I have read. The railroad system is typically seen as the train, with its steam engine, pushing ever westward with towns popping up in the wilderness. I now realize that there were more complex parts to the mix. People were unable to settle places because of the ridiculous land prices set by the rail companies. People started to backlash in public and in Congress, which I was surprised by. That they had concerns about the pollution was also a shock. The chapter also broke the idea in my mind that it was always a comfortable riding experience, when I read about the smoky cramped cars and uncomfortable seating.
When I watched John Henry, I remembered seeing it when I was younger. He was a mighty man. The short film showed the concern about the faceless railroad company having too much power, like taking the land that they had promised away, as well as the power of the steam engine itself. John Henry was a symbol for the human strength to stand up to that encroaching power.
The light rail looks like it will be a convenient and useful transportation tool in the future, although it has been a pain during the construction of the rails. I have seen a lot of progress in person over the course of the past couple of years. I watched the simulation video from their website and it looks like it will be nicer than I thought, but I wonder how packed it will become and if the buses will then be less full. It's hard to believe it costs so much for that amount of track.
This page contains a single entry by Capper Nichols published on February 11, 2013 8:39 AM.
America as Second Creation - David Nye: chapter 7 (152-173); train songs was the previous entry in this blog.
"Automobiles and Automobility" - Ruth S. Cowan; "Roads Belong in the Landscape" - J.B. Jackson is the next entry in this blog.
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