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The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

A-RailroadedAward-winning historian and Stanford University professor Richard White is the author of several significant books on Native American history and the American West, including The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (1991) and "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West (1991).

The Topic: Sweeping aside romantic legends of audacious visionaries and technological marvels, White sets out to rewrite a significant chapter in American history: the construction of the transcontinental railroads in the late 19th century. The first railroad tycoons built their fortunes on government handouts, gullible stockholders, and exploited laborers, argues White. Fraud and mismanagement inevitably bankrupted the railroads, devastating the nation's economy and triggering the Panic of 1873. And railroad tracks carved up the great American West, decimating native species and Native American tribes while inundating the land with settlers ill-equipped to cope with life on the frontier. "Transcontinental railroads," White concludes, "were a Gilded Age extravagance that rent holes in the political, social, and environmental fabric of the nation, creating railroads as mismanaged and corrupt as they were long."
W.W. Norton & Company. 660 pages. $35. ISBN: 9780393061260

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Don't pick up Railroaded expecting a romance of steam engines, lonesome whistles blowing, or poetic vistas glimpsed from the sliding doors of a boxcar. This is a story about the dark arts of accounting and the seemingly paradoxical fact that the transcontinental railroads were simultaneously ‘unsuccessful and powerful.'" Buzzy Jackson

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Railroaded provides a different and provocative view of the role of the transcontinentals in developing the American West. ... Railroaded will no doubt spark lively debate and become required reading for those seeking an insightful and recast history of the transcontinental railroad saga." Walter R. Borneman 4 of 5 Stars
"Dripping with venom, this book is nonetheless a model of the historian's use of primary sources, narrative skill, and insightful reinterpretation of the Gilded Age. It is easily the best business history I have read, and it carries a weight of argument and evidence that cannot be denied." Donald Worster

Washington Times 4 of 5 Stars
"To what extent is it entirely fair to judge the past through the eyes of the present? ... Overall, Mr. White has given us an excellent reference work for the origins of the railroads that facilitated expanded commerce in a growing nation." Wes Vernon

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The problem with this interpretation of history is that it fails to explain human progress. ... He has done much digging, most of it on original sources." Bruce Ramsey

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Railroaded, as its title suggests, is also a one-sided account: Mr. White never misses a chance to point out these men's failings. ... This is an exciting story and well told, even if colored by the author's dour view of its principals." John Steele Gordon

Critical Summary

White proves himself a gifted guide to the byzantine business deals and financial shenanigans that typified the creation and operation of the transcontinental railroads. Unafraid to challenge the conclusions of fellow historians, he presents a thought-provoking and prodigiously researched new view of the era, and while his indictment of early railroad magnates may be harsh, the critics argued that it wasn't undeserved, based as it is on the tycoons' own papers and correspondence. Although a few reviewers had minor qualms about applying modern-day ethics to historical events, they praised White's scholarship and sharp-edged prose. With its uncomfortable parallels to our current economic woes, White's "scathing and wonderful new book" (Boston Globe) will amuse and infuriate readers with eye-popping tales of corporate greed, shady politics, and federal bailouts.