Richard White, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and the Parkman Prize, is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University.
From White's Q & A about his latest book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, with Randy Dotinga for the Christian Science Monitor:
Q: You write that the transcontinental railroads weren't needed but got built anyway on the public dime. What happened?The Page 99 Test: Railroaded.
A: The basic thing is that no one would invest in them to begin with. You’re building a railroad into the middle of nowhere – railroads starting nowhere and ending nowhere. There's no traffic on these things, so that's why they have to be subsidized. You need all this public money and then borrowed money to get these things up and running.
They went bankrupt once, twice, three times, but the men running them got tremendously rich. Railroads become these containers for speculation, collecting subsidies and selling bonds, and financial manipulation.
They’re much like the companies we're familiar with now that have gone into bankruptcy but have made people rich.
Q: What was the legacy of the railroad boom?
A: We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion. They’re a disaster politically and...[read on]