Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
American Progress: The Growth of the Transport, Tourist and Information Industries in the Nineteenth Century American West, Seen Through the Life and Times of George A. Crofutt, Pioneer and Publicist of the Transcontinental Age.
By J. Valerie Fifer. Chester, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press, 1988. Bibliography. Illustration. Index. Maps. 472 Pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Dennis E. Berge, Professor of History, San Diego State University.
George Andrews Crofutt was an entrepreneur and writer of travelers’ guide books who frequented the American west from 1860 until the turn of the nineteenth century. His publications became linked to the rapid growth of tourism in the west following completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, and that connection has provided the framework for this book. It is in part a biography of Crofutt, and in a part a history of Western transportation and tourism. It falls short on both counts, and yet the wealth of sources and illustrations the author has used still makes this an interesting book.
Crofutt’s promotion of toursim ranged along both sides of an axis that ran from Colorado to California, and his first travel guide, published in 1869, was a description of travel over the union Pacific-Central Pacific route from Omaha to San Franciso. He wrote more than twenty travel guides in the years that followed, broadening his coverage of routes and travel accommodations, but eventually yielding his dominance to the publishers of the more comprehensive Baedeker’s Guide to the United States,which made its appearance in 1893. The Crofutt guides, however, contain a wealth of information about the American west. They are a major source for this study, and author Fifer has successfully used them to document the dynamics and the important roles of Western transportation and tourism.
A notable feature of this book is its more than one hundred illustrations-maps, lithographs, and photographs, mainly-taken from archives or contemporary publications that enrich the study and give it a special character. Students of San Diego history will warm to early pictures of the Hotel del Coronado or the tent city nearby, but these are rivaled by dramatic scenes of San Francisco’s original Cliff House, or of the Stoneman House that documentation of the tourists’ west goes beyond this; it brings back the magic of early Pullman cars and the primitive wonders of Yellowstone National Park, the engineering marvels of the Central Pacific Railroad, and the spectacular switchbacks of the Colorado Central Railroad’s Georgetown Loop. Fifer’s use of these visual records blends with the strong effort she has made to reconstruct the mood and setting of George Crofutt’s west, and in this she has been successful.
There are, however, a few flaws in this book. Although Crofutt was a prolific publisher he seemingly left few personal papers, and Fifer’s discussion of his private life, which rests heavily upon inference and conjecture, frequently lacks credibility. Neither is this book, as the title suggests, a full history of western transport, tourist, and information industries; the framework Fifer has constructed through Crofutt’s activities is too narrow for that. More nettlesome are the frequent irregularities in format and documention found throughout the study, for a book that was as extensively researched and expensively printed as this one should have received better editing.