The Epic Story of the American Railroad

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Duration 01:10:15

Fellow, The Royal Historical Society

Christian Wolmar is a journalist and broadcaster who specializes in transportation.  A former transportation correspondent for The Independent newspaper, he is a frequent guest on TV and radio shows, appearing most recently in the railway documentary “Ian Hislop: Trains That Changed the World.” The author of twenty books, his volumes on railway history include: The Great Railway Revolution: The History of Trains in America; Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World; and The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground Was Built and How it Changed the City Forever


The History of the American Railroads

The importance of the railroads can be encapsulated in a single figure: by the time of its entry into the First World War, the United States had 254,000 route miles of railway. That means every day between 1830 and 1916, eight miles of line were built.

American Railroads from 1830 – Today

The railroads made America. The early lines allowed the spread of people and industry eastwards. The Transcontinental sewed together a disparate land 3,000 miles wide with California and Oregon being linked to New York and Florida by speedy transport for the first time. Months long road or sea trips could now be undertaken in days. The railways were the stimulus to the rapid growth in the second half of the 19thcentury, by which time the US railroads had become the biggest companies in the land — and their owners, like JP Morgan, Vanderbilt and, later, Edward Harriman, were among its richest men.  The railways turned a largely rural land into one dominated by large cities and their accompanying sprawl of factories and suburbs. There was virtually no aspect of American life that was not affected by the advent of the railroads.

Sadly, America abandoned most of its passenger railways in the immediate postwar period, greatly increasing its reliance on road transport — a trend that many states are now hoping to reverse. In this lecture, Christian Wolmar will trace the story of railroads from 1830 through to the creation of Amtrak and the establishment of today’s highly profitable freight companies.


Recommended Reading for the History of the American Railroads:

  • All Aboard: The Railroad in American Life, by George H. Douglas
  • The Great Railway Revolution: The History of Trains in America, by Christian Wolmar
  • Railroads in the African American Experience: A Photographic Journey, by Theodore Kornweibel, Jr.
  • The Octopus: A Story of California, by Frank Norris (a novel about why the railroads attracted so much hatred)
  • Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean, by Les Standiford


Discussion Questions for The History of the American Railroads:

  1. What was the main stimulus for the growth of the railways?
  2. Would the United States of America exist had it not been for the railways?
  3. Why were passenger railways abandoned so quickly, and could they have been saved?
  4. Why were the railways hated as much as they were loved?




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