AmWest Post #9: Railroads and the West’s Transformation

This week’s reading was Richard White‘s influential Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, which focuses on the development of transcontinental rail lines from nothing at the dawn of the Civil War to multiple lines by the end of the 19th century.

White argues that the proliferation of these railroads, often heralded as a net success, were anything but beneficial for the country, or even for the railroad corporations themselves. Rather, they fleeced U.S. taxpayers for their subsidized construction and their customers and investors for their operation, often remaining unprofitable. They built so quickly that they outpaced demand, forcing further expansion to recoup both capital and operating costs, which exacerbated the problems that got them to that point in the first place.

Furthermore, White argues  that the change they wrought–the much more rapid opening of the region between the Missouri River and the coastal mountain ranges to Euro-American settlement than would otherwise have happened–had numerous negative consequences for dispossessed Native Americans, the environment, and even the Euro-American settlers themselves, who moved into marginal territory.

This simplification of White’s complicated argument will not the the center point of this post, though. Instead, I’d like to focus on two digital complements to the book. The first is “Shaping the West,” a web project of the Stanford Spatial History Lab. “Shaping the West” is a series of visualizations related to the information White used in Railroaded, but was not built as a companion to the book. For example, this visualization of the railroads from 1879 to 1893 shows the development of the rail system, and is meant to demonstrate White’s argument that the railroads expanded way too quickly. In many ways, this helped me make greater sense of that argument in the book. This simple map, showing population density and the railroads, and allowing the user to click to watch the year-by-year evolution, shows that part of White’s argument in Railroaded even more effectively than the book itself does, at least in my perception.

While “Shaping the West” appeared before the book did, White also maintains a companion site to Railroaded. I found it interesting that I only thought to look for this based on knowledge from previous digital classes (where we had discussed the Spatial History Lab’s work) and not from reading the print edition of the book itself, which, unless I missed something, didn’t refer to the website. Is that a sign that the website is meant to complement the printed book, but that the printed book is primary? Looking at the website suggests that is the case.

On that site, White directly presents the data behind the book’s arguments, and indeed presents the idea of “hybrid digital publishing.” The site consists of visualizations, a series of photos, and perhaps most importantly, interactive versions of White’s 2000 footnotes (the code for which appears to be not working so well, as the linked page here has an image of the book’s cover above the page’s text). Unfortunately, these different parts of the website do not link well together, and I found myself having to use the back button frequently to get to all of them.

The interactive versions of the footnotes leave something to be desired, but are a good start of the direction this type of website could take. They leave something to be desired in that most links go to a book or primary source’s entry on WorldCat, rather than the source itself. It represents a help in footnote mining, but doesn’t go as far as it could in putting the sources behind the footnotes in plain view. This is not to say that what White does here isn’t laudable. As someone working on a digital compilation of primary sources, I know how difficult not just compiling but digitizing can be. I will be curious if more historians choose to go this route in the future; indeed, I hope so. This level of transparency is especially laudable, as this section makes it all the easier for fellow historians to track White’s research.

The photos, meanwhile, offer what a printed book cannot: A set of extensive visual evidence. As a lover of HistoryPin, I was especially happy to see the photos (like this one) pinned there, as this helps a reader see the places described in the book.

Some of the visualizations are rather impressive, and the best part of this website, while others don’t offer as much. One that doesn’t offer so much is “The Central Pacific and Transcontinental 11 Step.” This presented a nice synopsis of some of the arguments of the book, with fun illustrations, that helped me consolidate what I read, but didn’t add much. By contrast, the visualization of who sat on the boards of the railroads is an excellent way to present the data underlying the book. A visualization that allows one to track individuals more directly is even more helpful.

So all in all, White’s Railroaded site presents a positive complement to his book, but not a replacement for reading it. The website makes White’s research more transparent, and offers visualizations that help convey his arguments even more effectively. This is not to say that it couldn’t offer a lot more to help users engage his arguments, and its navigation and layout could be much better. But it is a lot more than most authors are doing, and for that White should be lauded.


I commented on Megan’s blog post this week.

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