The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1980, Volume 26, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Reviews

Richard H. Peterson, Editor

Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. By John F. Stover. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 266 pages. $14.95.

Reviewed by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr., Associate Professor of Afro-American Studies, San Diego State University, author of No Crystal Stair (1975).

The 1850s witnessed such important growth by American railroads that the resultant changes fundamentally altered the political economy and geography of the nation. Although Professor Stover, the author of numerous books on railroads and transportation, prefers to call the late nineteenth century the “golden age” of American railroads, the Fifties might appropriately be identified as their first flowering. As late as 1850 the nation’s rail network was “a broken skein of short iron lines” from Maine to Georgia, with little mileage west of the Alleghenies. Within ten years, however, four major east-west railroad systems tied the eastern seaboard to the Old Northwest (Midwest), while feeders expanded across Missouri and penetrated Iowa plains. This expansion would soon overshadow the steamboat trade networks linking the South and Old Northwest in agricultural exchange and, often, in political sympathies. Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were increasingly joined to the East in trade, finance, and the ease of travel and communications; these ties foredoomed the cause of the Confederacy.

This tremendous rail expansion did not depend on private enterprise alone. Prosperity reigned during most of the Fifties, and with annual treasury surpluses, government willingly aided western and southern railroad growth through grants of federal land. Such support for transportation improvements was not pioneered in this era; in 1806 Thomas Jefferson had signed the National (Cumberland) Road Bill and after 1824 canal construction was similarly encouraged. The first land grant for railroad construction, in 1850, was pushed by both western and Gulf state legislators; not surprisingly, eight of the eleven states benefiting from federal largess in the Fifties bordered the Mississippi River. This support provided ample precedent for federal generosity to western railroads in the post-war period. Equally significant, by 1860, the railroads of Missouri, Iowa and Wisconsin were hard on the heels of the Census’ western frontier line. (The role of the railroads in advancing the frontier in the ten years before the Civil War is a chapter of social history Stover has not elected to relate.)

As early as the mid-1840s, visionaries dreamed of an iron road to the Pacific, and by the early 1850s powerful sectional politicians like Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis sought to transform dream into reality. The federal government, under their urging, financed surveys of four proposed rail routes across the country: from St. Paul through the Cascades; following the 38th parallel from St. Louis to northern California; along the 35th parallel from Fort Smith to San Pedro; and a route from Albuquerque to San Diego along the 32nd parallel. This last route was estimated to be not only the shortest, but also the cheapest in construction costs. Southerners, naturally, ardently wished for the transcontinental link to originate in their section, although an embarassment arose when it was discovered that the San Diego line survey had transgressed Mexican territory. The Gadsden Purchase rectified that obstacle, but sectional animosities of the Fifties made it impossible for northern and southern politicians, already quarreling over the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska issue, to agree on a single rail route to the Pacific. One can only speculate that, had such obstacles not appeared, and had the cheapest and most direct route indeed been the extreme southern one to San Diego, what the subsequent commercial, demographic, and cultural importance of the city would be today.

This volume is a useful survey of American railroads in the 1850s, and in fact that is the book’s subtitle, which is a more accurate description of the contents than its title. It is well illustrated with contemporary photographs, clear maps, and tables. The author’s forte is the history of technology and industrial-financial development, so those seeking a rich social history of westward railroad developments in the pre-Civil War period will be disappointed. An uninspired writing style and chapter organization will not endear the volume to the general reader. But to the transportation historian and any interested in the changing sectional economics preceding and influencing the Civil War, the book will be valuable. Railroad buffs will find it of moderate interest.