Random Find: How Railroads made the West

Poster from Montana Museum [Seattle Times] Book and Tacoma Exhibit describe how the “transportation revolution configured not just the landscape, but the very mindset of the American West.” The book is The West the Railroads Made, by Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda (Washington State Historical Society/University of Washington Press). The exhibit is at Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma (through January 24, 2009)

The article provideds some examples of The Change We Heed—as it reshaped life in that time:

Henry David Thoreau was one of the earliest observers to note the changes in the rhythms of American life triggered by the shift from stagecoach to rail transportation: “Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?”

Rail travel didn’t just speed things up; it codified time and industrial standards in unprecedented ways. Early in the railroad age, each town and city had its own time zone — a system that might work in the age of stagecoach transportation, but became untenable in the rail era.

The United States established four standard time zones. After all, if you wonder whether those trains run on time, you need to know what the time is.

Standardization didn’t just apply to time zones. “The railroad, with its standard track gauge, required goods of common sizes,” the authors explain. “At the simplest level, that meant wrenches that fit bolt heads, steam gauges that were all marked in the same scale, and rails of predictable length and weight.”

The resulting conformity of standards extended beyond railroad technology to human behavior: “Freewheeling individuals temperamentally unable to follow rules and orders found no place among the employees of a modern railroad.”

I’m very intrigued by this psychological change. I recall discussions in school (anthropology) between advanced technology societies and those that aren’t. We were probably more similar to the “traditional” societies until that train came barreling through.

There’s a web site for the exhibit. The most amazing photo is on this page, where the railroads changed the landscape of the west.

All this makes me wish I were in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Hey there, FootnoteMaven! I know you have a list of Tacoma-events. Oh please, fM, go to this exhibit and give us all a report.

As for me, I’m curious about any Pacific Northern RR resources, especially when that particular railroad came to Billings, Montana.

How was this a random find? I typed in “american west” into google last night. Found it in the news results. Very random. Go figure. Oh, and if you were wondering how this topic fits into oral history? It does not. It’s a personal research fascination that is in danger of growing into an obsession wink Still, I wonder what kind of oral history has already been conducted (heh, she said conducted!) with railroaders? At this time, I wonder how many railroad old timers are left? Not many.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on November 24, 2008 in • History
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