A Most Magnificent Machine
America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862
George W. and Constance M. Hilton Book Award
Just as the railroad transformed America's economic landscape, it profoundly transfigured its citizens as well. But while there have been many histories of railroads, few have examined the subject as a social and cultural phenomenon. Informed especially by rich research in the nation's newspaper archives, Craig Miner now traces the growth of railroads from their origins in the 1820s to the onset of the Civil War.
“Will prove useful to non-specialists and entertaining to casual readers.”
—Pacific Historical Review
“Makes a significant contribution to the history of American railroads.”
—Indiana Magazine of HistorySee all reviews...
“Students of antebellum transportation are richer for Miner’s having written this book, a fitting capstone to a distinguished career.”
—Journal of Southern History
“As a capstone to a distinguished career, Miner has recovered and presented the voices and thoughts of the first generations of Americans to experience the wonders and the challenges of the railway age—an age that remade their own lives and ours.”
—Register of the Kentucky Historical Society
“Valuable for those interested in the emergent American attitudes about railroads.”
—Technology and Culture
“Crisply written and meticulously researched. Miner’s exhaustive research in newspapers, articles, books, and pamphlets provides keen insight into how the railroad captured the American imagination and transformed how Americans viewed themselves and their place in the world.”
—Southwestern Historical Quarterly
“Written in a delightful style and based on a highly sophisticated research design, this extraordinary volume deserves widespread readership.”
—The Lexington Quarterly
“ . . . well researched, authoritative, and easy to read.”
—Journal of Interdisciplinary History
“Miner illustrates with vivid detail the shock, wonder, delight, and dismay that attended the early decades of the railroad revolution in antebellum America. . . . A useful addition to the literature on both antebellum American social history and the transportation revolution. . . . Casual readers interested in railroads will enjoy the lush retelling of the early years of the industry's development.”
—American Historical Review
“This is more than a historical analysis of American society's adoption of the railroad. It explains how American society both adopted and adapted to what, at the time, was a complex, largely unknowable technological system that was developing and expanding at a faster pace than the ongoing political, cultural, and social debates about its potential benefits and detriments could match. And it does so in the voices of that society, which speak to us through the medium of The Press from an era when, as Miner observes, ‘Everyone read the paper.’ . . . Miner traces the path of the American railroad from novelty thrill ride in the near-hinterlands of coastal cities to the network of trans-Appalachian lines that formed the backbone of industrial and agricultural capitalism by the eve of the Civil War.”
“Miner tells an interesting tale about the impact of railroads on the nation and how Americans tried to embrace the benefits and navigate the social pitfalls of this bold, new technology. His book provides a nice beginning point for anyone fascinated by how the iron horse helped transform a fractious nation on the eve of Civil War.”
—Civil War Book Review
“An impressive study that expands the path-breaking works of Leo Marx’s Machine in the Garden and Bruce Mazlish’s The Railroad and the Space Program to reprise the early national debate over railroads.”
—James A. Ward, author of Railroads and the Character of America, 1820–1887
“An imaginatively researched, delightfully written, and sensibly argued study that offers comprehensive insights into the Railway Age’s formative years.”
—H. Roger Grant, author of The Railroads: The Life Story of a Technology
“No technology loomed larger in the lives of early Americans than the railroad, with its nearly irresistible capacity to enlarge the scope of commerce and expand the nation’s reach. Combing a vast treasure trove of antebellum newspapers, Miner conveys the full drama of this prolonged encounter between a people and a machine. His book offers unprecedented insight into the exhilaration and the anxiety that accompanied this transforming innovation.”
—Steven W. Usselman, author of Regulating Railroad Innovation: Business, Technology, and Politics in America, 1840–1920See fewer reviews...
In this first social history of the early railroads, Miner reveals how ordinary Americans experienced this innovation at the grass roots, from boosters' dreams of get-rich schemes to naysayers' fears of soulless corporations. Drawing on an amazing 400,000 articles from 185 newspapers-plus more than 3,000 books and pamphlets from the era-he documents the initial burst of enthusiasm accompanying early railroading as it took shape in various settings across the country.
Miner examines the cultural, economic, and political aspects of this broad and complicated topic while remaining rooted in the local interests of communities. He takes readers back to the days of the Mauch Chunk Railway, a tourist sensation of the mid-1820s, navigates the mixed reactions to trains as Baltimore's city fathers envisioned tracks to the Ohio River, shows how Pennsylvanians wrestled with the efficacy of railroads versus canals, and describes the intense rivalry of cities competing for trade as old transportation patterns were replaced by the new rail technology.
Miner samples individual railroads to compare progress across the industry, showing how it became a quintessentially American business-and how the Panic of 1837 significantly slowed the railways as a major engine of growth for many years. He also explores the impact of railroads on different regions, even disproving the backwardness of the South by citing the Central of Georgia as one of the best-managed and most profitable lines in the country.
Through this panoramic work, readers will discover just how the benefits of what became the country's first big business triumphed over cultural concerns, though not without considerable controversy along the way. By identifying citizens' hopes and fears sparked by the railroads, A Most Magnificent Machine takes readers down the tracks of progress as it opens a new window on antebellum America.