The Birth of Restlessness
Implications of Rail on the Physical Development of the United States
Trains were invented in England, but it was in early 19th century America that the railroad had space to evolve and flourish. This section unveils how rail was a major contributor to the physical form of America at multiple scales, beginning with the scale of the station and ending with the scale of nation. (Because this history is so vast, I've focused the research around the architectural, urban, and territorial developments of the Illinois Central, the first railroad developed with the aid of a federal land grant.)
In his book The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America historian Christian Wolmar recounts a tale of the groundbreaking ceremony for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in Maryland. The date was July 4, 1828, a mere half-century since the founding of the nation. Turning the symbolic first shovelful of earth was Charles Carroll, the last surviving signatory of the Declaration of Independence. His words were direct: I consider what I have just now done to be among the most important acts of my life, second only to signing the Declaration of Independence, if indeed it even be second to that.
This sentiment was bold but prescient. Over the next century
, the railroad would indeed come to unite the individual states and catalyze the growth and settlement of a vast and industrious America. Yet this didn’t happen all at once. Although the great untapped expanses of the American West would provide fertile ground for expansion and development of railroad technology, in the beginning the young age of the country actually hindered growth in several ways.
A mere half-century in age, America lacked the financial capital to fund large railroad projects. In Great Britain the industrial revolution left the country well positioned for locomotive manufacturing. But in the early nineteenth century America remained largely agricultural with small pockets of industry burgeoning in New England. (In fact, because of Great Britain’s industrial advantage, iron rails for early US railroads were actually imported from there.) The young government was plagued by disagreements over state versus federal authority, and the railroad would eventually require the coordination of state and federal governments to flourish. Historian Sara Gordon notes that many of the founding fathers, including George Washington, championed national infrastructure development as a means of uniting the vast country. But many were wary of federal involvement in the railroads, and individual states had control over charters (which bestowed the necessary powers of eminent domain). Although it is hard to fathom today, some state-issued railroad charters in the beginning actually prohibited railroads from connecting over state lines due to fear of competition.
The result was a lack of coordination between railroad companies. Some opted for “standard gauge” tracks (an interior clear distance of 4’–8 ½”), while many southern railroads preferred a broader 5’0” gauge, and still others opted for a more economical narrow-gauge network. Further complicating matters was the institutional complexity of large transportation ventures. Railroads would come to manage a huge variety of employees, from conductors, brakemen and firemen, to station agents and train-yard employees, to office secretaries and warehouse clerks. Railroads with land grants managed land sales and town surveying, as well as major marketing campaigns to draw settlers from the east coast and Europe. There was simply no precedent for corporations of this size and diversity. The legal system had to develop alongside the industry, and labor for the huge railroad construction teams was sometimes in short supply. And, of course, there was opposition from those invested in local canals and turnpikes.
So there were hurdles to growth, which explains why, in the early years, American railroads were designed to solve local transportation problems. For example, the Mohawk and Hudson Railroad (1826) had one goal: to reduce a day-long bend in the Erie Canal to an hour-long train trip. The Granite Railway (1826) was incorporated in Massachusetts to haul granite for the construction of the Bunker Hill Monument. The South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company (1827) simply connected Charleston to the Savannah River. During this period, the notion of a nationwide railroad network was just too big for most Americans—and even some railroad developers—to imagine. As such, it seems appropriate to begin an exploration of the spatial implications of the railroad at the smallest of scales: the station itself.
New Programmatic Typologies
In the earliest years of the railroad, efforts towards innovation were not architectural. Where stations existed they were ad-hoc affairs: simple covered platforms or, in some cases, a nearby general store or hotel would shelter passengers waiting on the train. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention: as railroads expanded over time a great quantity of programmatic typologies were developed to cater to the needs of the train and its operations, employees, and passengers. Most of these new typologies borrowed their architectural language from existing structures of related scale and function. Most small train stations resembled houses, and many operations structures resembled structures found on the farms or mills dotting the countryside. In the beginning the architecture of the train was always familiar. The great height and width of the cars and locomotives, along with the limited turning radius of the train, however, required the horizontal and vertical proportions of the familiar house and farm architecture to be stretched, skewed, and pushed above or below grade. Access to the train was required from all sides: from the top for loading, from the side for passengers, and from below for servicing the locomotive and cars.
Architecture for Trains and Operations
In order for trains to provide safe service for passenger and freight travel, a variety of specialized structures were required, including: water towers, ice and sand houses, car sheds and cleaning yards, oil storage and mixing houses, coaling stations, ash pits, snow sheds and protection sheds, signal towers, section tools houses, engine houses, freight houses, and freight depots. See below for a gallery of selected drawings and images of these typologies.
Architecture for Employees
During construction and for safe operations, railroad employees were lodged along the line in section houses (dedicated to overseeing a “section” of the line). In some cases, railroads would also provide sleeping quarters, reading rooms, clubhouses, and dwelling houses. Watchman’s shanties were located at every major crossing, and watchmen would keep local traffic safe from oncoming trains. See below for a gallery of selected drawings and images of these typologies.
Architecture for Passengers
Passenger transportation required facilities for buying tickets, waiting for trains, and boarding trains that were sheltered from the weather and, usually, removed from freight facilities. This included platforms and platforms sheds, flag depots, combination depots, through depots and terminal stations. Stations tended to adopt the architectural revivalist styles that dominated the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, albeit with exaggerated entrances, porches, and awnings. As small towns prospered, stations were rebuilt with more grandeur and prominence that reflected the importance of the train to the city's growth. “Union” stations replaced smaller stations in small towns with multiple railroads. See below for a gallery of selected drawings and images of these typologies.
Spatial Inventions and Exploitation
The most interesting architectural inventions of the railroad began to occur when companies merged, expanded, prospered, and greatly increased operations to the extent that buildings of an unprecedented scale became a necessity. New, dramatic spaces were required to serve the industry, such as massive waiting rooms, covered platform halls of great vertical and horizontal dimension, ticket sales with queuing logic, efficient luggage processing, circulation halls with timetable displays (and the resulting international phenomena of crowds standing in a big room looking at a screen). Large railroads spared no expense at their terminal stations in large cities, with some taking on the civic role of a modern cathedral: the most impressive meeting space in the city, with vaulted ceilings, impressive construction materials, and cutting edge structural technology.
Moreover, stations began to absorb new and expanded programs to serve passengers and become civic destinations, even for those not travelling. Stations typically hosted newsagents and bookstores, shoe cleaners and hairdressers, drug stores and soda fountains, shops and diners, and even fine restaurants.
New Landmarks and "Progress"
Nearly every important city across the world has at least one magnificent train station. These structures took on the role of gateways to the city, edifices of progress, and a reflection of urban pride, all while celebrating the railway companies that built them. Journalists used language usually reserved for religious architecture to describe these stations, such as “temples of transportation” and “cathedrals of steam" or "cathedrals of progress."
More than just opulent structures, train stations were one of the few truly democratic structures in the city. Historian Derek Boles elaborates: Unlike other monuments to distinctive architecture such as courthouses, department stores, cathedrals, bank lobbies, theatres and skyscrapers, the grand rail terminals were open to everyone. They were truly public buildings where all classes could mingle. On their way to and from the trains, the rich and famous passed through the same gates and walked along the same concrete platforms as the impoverished immigrant. The invention of transportation - accessible to the public in centralized industrial cathedrals - reinforced America's democratic culture.
The centralized station created an urban nexus upon which all classes converged. Author George Douglas captures the vibrancy of the station in the Victorian Age: …the railroad terminal was also somehow a microcosm of city life; scarcely another single place could make such a claim since the city by its very definition seemed to allow no small model of itself, no place where its essence could be summed up. But here in the great railroad terminal, one could see on display everything that made social life tick: urgency, mobility, response to desire and aspiration, standards of dress, habits of thought, peculiarities of speech, ebb and flow, joy and sorrow, motion and emotion, parting and reunion. Even today, many train stations, whether small and simple or large and opulent, are places of intense and varied human activity.
In many European countries, the development of the railroad occurred within a context of urban centers that were well established, many having existed for hundreds of years. The train served to link city to city, or the city to some productive hinterland to bring crops and livestock to market. But at the dawn of the railroad in America, much of the country remained an inaccessible frontier occupied by smaller Native American populations regarded as foreign nations. Good roads were in scarce supply, and the cost of transporting crops to far-away markets was high. Subsistence farming was the norm, and industrial scale enterprise for mining, timber, agriculture, or livestock production was not achievable because access to markets to purchase these goods was limited. Small towns were, to a large extent, economically independent units with localized systems of trade and little inter-dependence or regional connectivity. In early nineteenth century America, the challenges of overcoming the friction of space determined many aspects of settlement and daily life.
In this context, the train became an agent of development that transformed the country. At the scale of the city, the train remade existing urban environments and created new towns with a focus on the station as a center and the most important civic space. Although the train had considerable economic and physical implications for existing cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago, the following sections are dedicated to the consideration of towns and territories produced almost entirely by the railroad industry itself, specifically the Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) as the first private company given a federal land grant to construct and operate a railroad in the United States.
Illinois Central Railroad Charter and "The Associates"
In 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed an act providing for the creation of a railroad to connect Chicago and the Great Lakes to Mobile and the Gulf of Mexico through the states of Illinois, Mississippi, and Alabama. To raise funds for the construction of the line, even-numbered sections of land six miles on each side of the route were granted from the federal government to the state (and eventually to a state-chartered railroad company). Where a section of land wasn't available to the company within the twelve-mile buffer, due to existing development or previous settlement, any available section of land within fifteen miles of the route could be taken. To compensate for it's real estate loss, the federal government raised the price of the remaining odd-numbered sections within the twelve-mile buffer from $1.25 an acre to $2.50 an acre.
To prevent the railroad from profiting too deeply on the land, an amendment to the act forbade the chartered company to lay out towns on their own sections of land, as town sites would bring a much higher selling price than agricultural land. This stipulation was later rescinded in 1855, to the extent that the ICRR could plat towns at “such points on the (line) where their depots are already located and established.” (There is some evidence that the railroad did, in fact, lay out towns before this date—they simply waited to register the plats with the county until it was legal to do so.) Still, the initial existence of the restriction on laying out towns paved the way for four of the original directors of the ICRR to turn a profit outside of the company itself. David Neal, George Griswold, Jonathan Sturges, and Morris Ketchum, together with R. B. Mason, the engineer in charge of construction, formed a company called the “Land Associates” to purchase key odd-numbered sections of land from the federal government. Because the men had advance knowledge of the final route through Illinois, and influence over the location of depots and stations on odd-numbered sections, they stood to make a great deal of money from the sale of parcels in the new towns. This form of unscrupulous land grab is a constant threat to large public works, especially when they are developed and operated by private consortiums.
In the early 1800s Illinois’ urban form drew inspiration from many sources. A river would almost always inspire long, narrow parcels at its edge, giving each owner direct access to the waters edge for shipping. Topographical conditions would require consideration, such as a shift in the urban fabric or a road that followed the contours of the countryside. The organization of land into townships and sections distributed ownership into shapes like rectangles and squares that were aligned with the cardinal directions. As such, the most efficient layouts were grids organized along the same axes, though the size and proportion of the streets and blocks varied widely from town to town. Importantly, many were laid out around a shared, central public space: a square or plaza or park that would host gatherings, markets, and festivals. Towns were created by aggregation, platted by anyone who owned the land according to his vision of American urbanism. This tended to produce city forms that, although familiar in their overall organization, remained nuanced and idiosyncratic—a manifestation of the local imaginary.
Unlike pre-railroad towns that formed “organically,” through the actions of local citizens and in response to local conditions, the towns of the railroad were produced with the same industrial mindset as the railroad itself. The Land Associates led the way with a literal “urban template,” a standard plat designed for efficiency and focused on the station. The Associates' land sales record book contains thirty-three entries, each with a blank copy of a standardized, reproducible town plan ready to be filled in by the surveyor.
The Associates' town design is distinct in several important aspects. Although the layout of most Illinois towns adhered to the grid of the Land Ordinance of 1785 for efficiency, the Associates’ plat instead oriented the grid to the line. The railroad became the spine of the city, and all development happened outward from that geometry. On both sides of the tracks, the land was divided into a grid of 320' x 400' blocks that present their long side to the tracks, privileging circulation in the same direction as the trains. Parallel to the tracks, generous streets with a 70’ clear right-of-way are named after American tree species, such as Chestnut, Oak, Walnut, and Locust. Narrower 40’ wide alleys split the blocks. Perpendicular to the tracks, the 70’ wide streets are numbered, increasing in both directions from the center: North First Street and South First Street flank the station, creating a “ground zero” for the town. The parcels are narrower near the station, only 40’ wide, adding density and diversity along the streets fronting the tracks.
Traditionally, the center of the town was a park, plaza, or other shared public open space that established a civic identity for the towns and cities. But for the railroad town, the center of the city is the station. Hierarchically, it is the most important space—simultaneously taking on the role of establishing a city's unique civic identity while also connecting it to the network of industrialized territory.
By charter, the railroad was granted 100' on each side of the line for the main tracks, side tracks, and operating area. Although the station was the center of the town, this 200' wide swath created a substantial separation through railroad towns that never occurred in earlier towns. Further dividing the city, the Associates' standard plat indicates a freight depot on one side of the tracks and a passenger depot on the other. More than simply shifting the central focus of the town, the two stations established an inherent bias to these towns: one side of the tracks caters to warehouses, light manufacturing, and other freight-oriented uses, and the other caters to shops, and traveler-oriented uses. Passengers were reluctant to cross the dangerous railroad right-of-way, so most commercial businesses preferred to locate on the station side of town. In other words, the “wrong side of the tracks” is built into the urban template through both function and physical separation. Lower income citizens congregated on the less welcoming, more industrialized, and sometimes-toxic side of town.
The Associates would profit from the sale of real estate, but the railroad would profit from the traffic—passenger and freight—that came to the town for the train. As noted by Richard O. Davies and Joseph A. Amato: It was not an ingrained belief in the virtues of urban design that led to a mapped prefiguration of a town, but rather an imperative to control development. Therefore, the urban template privileges efficiency and circulation over the station as a civic amenity of a lived-in environment. Naturally, varying conditions surrounding each new town required the Associates’ standard plat to be modified to suit each location. For example, the rotated grid that followed the line created flatiron parcels at the section edges. To adjust the standard template, the Associates marked each plat with pencil and yellow ink as a record of these modifications. The back of each plat contains a hand sketch of the odd-numbered section, indicating which portions were to be sold as farmland and in what proportions. See below for selected examples of the Associates’ 1850s plat book, county records of town layouts, and contemporary aerial photos of each location.
All told, the Land Associates had direct influence on the development of dozens of towns in Illinois, and indirect influence on many more. The Associates' plat book includes thirty-three entries, though only seventeen of the locations included actual town sites, some of the entries only including farmland near the listed towns. (Other historical records indicate members of the Land Associates had influence on the town layout for Dunleith, Amboy, and Bourbonnais.) Below, Associates' plats are indicated in blue while official ICRR plats are shown in orange. Notice that the ICRR adopted the Associates' urban template, and extended it where the two organizations platted abutting sections. Other landowners sometimes adopted the pattern established by the railroad companies. At other times they opted to hold the grid to the cardinal directions for efficiency within their own section.
The Lasting Influence of the Associates' Urban Template
Throughout the nineteenth century towns connected to the railroad thrived while others faded and, in some cases, disappeared entirely. Collectively, these prosperous railroad towns determined a vision of American civic modernity for the age. Although the Associates only platted seventeen towns, the influence of their urban design extended far beyond the edges of those towns. The formal attributes of their template are clearly visible in other locations. This is especially true of the forty-one towns platted by the ICRR after the restriction prohibiting the railroad from developing town sites was lifted. The ICRR reproduced the Associates' unique grid rotation, block size, parcel distribution, street widths and naming convention, the disposition of the freight and passenger stations and architectural celebration of the city in the form of a depot or station, and the conspicuous absence of shared civic space in the form of parks and plazas.
Moreover, the Associates' urban template is scaled for an optimistic level of development. Main streets with 70' right-of-way can comfortably support zero-setback, party wall development four to six stories high. Many smaller railroad towns never experienced that level of prosperity, and so development remained at one to two stories on main street, and even more sparse elsewhere in the city. These towns, where they still exist today, feel open and unfinished with too-wide streets and too-small buildings.
These elements came to inform the look and feel of what was considered a modern, progressive city. The urban elements of small town America were codified and repeated across the region [regardless of the appropriateness of design]. In addition to formal implications, the towns of the railroad exhibited an important functional shift from the towns of the 18th century. Rather than independent poles of culture and trade catering to homesteaders, towns became nodes in a larger network of capitalistic enterprise. As the landscape was transformed for industrial scale resource production and extraction, there was more demand for white collar work in cities-clerks, warehouse managers, railroad agents-and architecture to support those functions.
The Naming of America
Among many other railroads, the ICRR were responsible for naming new towns as they were platted. The naming of new towns along the line followed a system not unlike heavy industrial production itself. The Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad had the following protocol:
- A name that is reasonably short
- A name that is easily spelled
- A name that will not sound like any other in the Morse Alphabet
- A name that will not look like that of any other station in the vicinity when written in train orders
- A name that will not sound like any other name when being called in checking baggage or freight
- A name that will be satisfactory to the Post Office Department
- A pleasant sounding name
Exceptions to these protocols were inevitably made. In some cases, towns were named for important executives, their wives, their children, important railroad employees, etc. Such are the cases for Rantoul, Illinois, named after ICRR board member Robert Rantoul and Forsyth, Illinois, named after Robert Forsyth, the general freight agent.
As the train was inventing new urban forms, it was also attracting and redistributing settlement, establishing patterns of occupancy tailored to steam engine technology, providing a means for a new scale of trade, and in general defining new operative territories of communication, culture, and commerce across the nation. As described in the Quarterly Review for 1839: Supposing that our railroads, even at our present simmering rate of travelling, were to be suddenly established all over England, the whole population of the country would, speaking metaphorically, at once advance en masse, and place their chairs nearer to the fireside of their metropolis....As distances were thus annihilated, the surface of our country would, as it were, shrivel in size until it became not much bigger than one immense city. This notion foreshadows significant economic, geographic, and cartographic research into the concept of time-space compression (discussed further in Part 2).
Continuing with the use of Illinois as a case study: in the early 1800s much of the land in the state was unsettled by Europeans and largely inaccessible. Residents clustered near cities situated on navigable waterways for accessibility, and many areas were swampy and in need of drainage. Subsistence farming was the norm, because trade was conducted locally and markets for the purchase of farm products were small. (In 1850, only one of every 131 acres of land in the counties later traversed by the ICRR in Iowa were under cultivation. In 1929, 1 out of every 1 1/2 acres was under cultivation.) Roads were rare, and when they existed at all they were rarely well maintained. A north-south trip through the state might take several weeks to complete. News traveled slowly, and the friction of travel was high; cities that were close geographically were still weeks apart by travel. For most purposes—communication, culture, commerce, etc.—territories in the 1800s were geographically small, but temporally large.
The Spatial Implications of Steam Engine Technology
Transportation technology has important and idiosyncratic spatial implications. In later centuries the car would cater to its own needs in remaking the urban environments established by the train: highways and access ramps would slice through cities, buildings would be replaced by parking lots, and streets would be widened to increase lanes of traffic at the expense of the pedestrian realm. In the same way, the railroad made, and remade, the built environment in its own image throughout the 1800s.
The steam engine itself was almost like a living being; Walt Whitman referred to it as a "fierce-throated beauty." Thick clouds of steam and smoke shot straight up into the sky, powering hundreds of visible parts clamoring in syncopation to propel the machine forward. Movement was rhythmic and musical: the stack snorted and huffed steam, and the whistle pierced the air in a high-pitch squeal or a low, bellowing moan. Each locomotive had its own ticks and quirks and, like ships, many were given unique names. The steam engine required fuel and water at fairly frequent intervals. Outside of any local or topographical considerations, supply stops are the most basic physical implication train.
The engine consumed fuel non-stop at a rate based on the size of the engine, the operating speed, the general topography, and the combined weight of the train, freight, and passengers. In the early years, locomotives would stop to refill the tender (the car directly behind the engine to hold wood or coal) as frequently as every 100–125 miles. Water would be required at five to seven mile intervals, though eventually larger on-board water tanks extended the running distance. The engine would need oiled, inspected, and maintained about every 125 miles, which became a standard length for a railroad division.
Not every water stop would necessitate a town site. Often a simple water tower and track siding would meet the demands of the steam engine. But often there was a town site at these locations for other reasons. First, the Land Ordinance of 1785 surveyed a good portion of the US into thirty-six-square-mile townships: six miles on each side. Local desire for a station in each township, coupled with the pragmatic need for water and fuel, gave rise to many "flag-stop" towns with freight and sometimes passenger depots. Finally, towns were spaced to intensely develop agricultural resources and establish local operating economies.
Steam engine technology had implications on spatial development patterns, but place and culture also had an effect on the design of the train itself. In the US, the most abundant form of fuel in the nineteenth century was wood. When burned for fuel in a steam engine, hot embers could escape through the exhaust and fall smoldering to the ground, thus endangering the unsettled land near the line with wildfires. American wood-burning locomotives therefore opted for a diamond shaped stack (exhaust chimney) to contain sparks and embers that could cause a fire. Coal was more common throughout Europe, so the diamond shaped stack became a uniquely American feature. Similarly, a triangular steel grating called a “pilot” (or a “cowcatcher”) was often installed on American locomotives to knock any obstacles on the tracks away from the train. [The vastness of the American West meant that deer, bison, and yes, cows, wandered onto the tracks frequently enough to demand a catcher.] In England, railroads were typically protected with fencing along the line, so pilots were not common.
ICRR's federal charter gave a general directive for a route with two branches, connecting: the southern terminus of the Illinois and Michigan Canal to a point at or near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with a branch of the same to Chicago on Lake Michigan, and another, via the town of Galena, in said state, to Dubuque, in the state of Iowa. The specific route was such a politically charged issue that the charter was purposefully vague. The railroad company had much of the power to determine the specific route. Thus, there were several key economic and engineering factors that influenced the ICRR's delineation of the perfect route.
First, the railroad should maximize its potential profit by selecting a route through areas that would offer the most traffic to the company. That meant choosing areas with the greatest natural resources of timber, agriculture, minerals, and the like.
Second, as stipulated in the charter, the ICRR could not take land from existing owners, nor could it compensate by taking sections further than fifteen miles from the route. Selecting a route through areas that were already settled with small to mid-size towns or established farms was a far less desirable option than a route through unsettled land. Exceptions were made for substantial cities with thriving industry, such as Bloomington, Clinton, Decatur, Freeport, Dixon, Galena, La Salle, Mendota, and Vandalia.
Third, the route should be economical to construct. That meant no expensive rights of way, or long bridges, viaducts, or tunnels, or routes that would require extensive grading. Where challenging topography existed, the route follows the natural contours of the landscape rather than enlisting expensive civil engineering projects.
Finally, routes that would involve a high level of maintenance for operation and safety, such as grades and curves, were to be avoided. See below for a timeline of the ICRR railroad construction, including an estimation of the land sales over time created with data from the Illinois secretary of state and ICRR historical records.
Railroad executives accurately predicted that the bulk of their business would come from long-haul freight services shipping agriculture, livestock, building materials, coal and minerals, and manufactured goods. In 1850 much of the best land for agriculture lay far from a station. For maximum profitability, the railroad stations needed to be distributed to best serve the local farmers who would be shipping crops and livestock on the line. Towns spaced too closely together would result in lower business at each one. Too few towns or elevators would result in lost business, or leave room in the market for another rail line to become competitive. Sometimes a town or group of farmers would develop a branch line independent of the major railroad companies. These were often called short lines.
John C Hudson lays out the economies of space and scale for farmers in the mid-1800s: Wheat yields...averaged between ten and twenty bushels per acre. Taking the midpoint of that range, the output of a quarter section of land would be twenty wagonloads of grain. If the elevator were no more than eight miles away, a farmer could make one round trip in a day, including loading, hauling, waiting, unloading, and returning to his farm. Twenty days of work for marketing a quarter section of wheat at a distance of eight miles would become roughly forty days if the elevator were far enough away so that he could not complete a round trip in one day.
In some instances, to preserve the ideal station spacing the railroad would refuse to install a switch along the route even if a settlement was already built up. Such was the case in 1854 for the small town of Luro, and many of the storekeepers moved their stores to nearby Oconee where the ICRR platted a town the next year. Similarly, rather than altering the optimal route to incorporate the existing town of Jonesboro, the ICRR simply developed Anna, a new town, one mile east.
New Operative Territories of Communication, Culture, and Commerce
The construction of the ICRR and other railroads initiated a massive temporal compression of traditional territorial extents. Previously inaccessible land was now open to settlement from the outside: farming and livestock, mining, logging, and other industries could now be freely developed to industrial scales. H. Roger Grant documented a nineteenth century observation: Before the coming of railways corn could not be sold or given away in many sections and it literally rotted in the cribs.
In 1853, an Alabama newspaper noted: This is an evidence of the value of railroads. This timber is brought from a section of the country, four years ago impenetrable, and these trees as they then stood were worthless. The train increased the value of natural resources and labor, because settlers could ship their goods at a low cost to a geographically expanded buyer’s market.
Moreover, processors and manufacturers now had access to a geographically expanded consumer territory. The increased volume of trade reduced unit prices on a range of products, making them attainable at lower costs. This sparked a consumerism for finished goods, like hard coal, finished lumber, cut nails, and processed foods. The reduced cost of transportation and unit costs ushered in the Gilded Age: farmers found a buyer for their corn, and manufacturers found customers for their corn flakes. A railroad executive captured the massive changes: By steam power all the various products of the earth are rapidly, and with trifling expense, centered in the same spot. Under these influences the old relations of society are rapidly disappearing, and the new ones are taking their place. Tradition is fast losing power over the hands of man.
Ploughs leave the factory loaded into wagons ready to be shipped on the railroad in 1890. Source: Powerhouse Museum.
The train introduced processes of spatial industrialization in the production of architecture, cities, and territories. Yet at the scale of the nation, the train galvanized an often politically incongruous union of states through expansion of communications (both the telegraph and expedited postal services), the standardization of time, and the development of a shared and uniquely American cultural identity.
An American Zeitgeist
Throughout the nineteenth century, railroads were constructed on nearly every continent and with an unprecedented rate of adoption. Later transportation technologies, like the car and the plane, would transform the built environment in their own image. But comparatively, cars and planes were adopted more gradually and were initially very expensive commodities. By contrast, the wholesale adoption of the train was sudden and explosive.
Instead of associating the train with the negative aspects of England's industrial revolution, most Americans would ascribe to it their own cultural values of freedom, equality, liberty, and progress. As Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in 1843: Americans take to this contrivance, the railroad, as if it were the cradle in which they were born. Frenchman Guillaume Poussin noted similarly: The railroad, animated by its powerful locomotive, appears to be their personification of the American.
The train—as a transportation technology and a cultural mirror—was embraced by America with a passion unmatched by any other nation. The art and writings of the period envisioned the train as an agent of change with a distinct moral undertone. An essay titled "The Past and Future" published in the American Railroad Journal captured the spirit of the age: The age of locomotion is the era of progress. Wherever the railway extends, knowledge and civilization advance in a geometrical ratio. Where the railroad is unknown civilization will cease, in contrast with those in possession of this sublime and benevolent agent. The steamboat, the railway and the telegraph, all the product of the last fifty years, in the hands of the people will overthrow the despotisms of the past, and reconstruct society on the principles of liberty and of social order.
The Standardization of Time
The notion of standardizing time has its roots in the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) in 1675, when the British Royal Observatory was constructed. Before the widespread development of the railroad, time was a local matter. GMT was used mostly to assist mariners in determining their longitude while at sea. Towns throughout England kept their local times and simply used GMT as a reference. It was determined by the sun above, or by a shared, dependable public clock tower. But small temporal discrepancies were inconvenient or dangerous for train travel: without a shared system within and between railroad companies, crashes at line crossings and missed connections at stations were inevitable. Each line kept its own time, usually along the meridian of its originating station or an important terminus.
In his essay "The Economics of Time Zones," Matthew White states the problem: By one estimate, in the 1870s there were some 8,000 individual local time conventions being kept by towns and communities across the nation. Abandoning this local time system was inconceivable—as late as 1882, a U.S. Senate report on this haphazard state of affairs concluded that “it would appear to be as difficult to alter by edict the ideas and habits of the people in regard to local time as it would be to introduce among them a novel system of weights, measures, volumes and money.” Local time not only created a shared temporal sense, but also the sense of local community: one that abided by a shared and idiosyncratic time determined by a centrally located clock tower or church bell. Resistance to standardization was resistance to outside interference.
Still, around the mid-point of the nineteenth century the notion of standardizing time started to gain enthusiasm. In England the Great Western Railway adopted GMT as standard time in 1840, and other railroads followed quickly. In the US, a large consortium of railroads convened a General Time Convention (GTC) in 1872, which established general agreements between companies regarding methods of safe operation within the variety of local time conventions. These agreements were workable for many years, over which period a variety of time zone solutions were proposed to the railroads.
Charles F. Dowd, a school principal from Saratoga, NY, created a proposal for time zones across the United States in strict fifteen-degree wedges. His idea was that only the railroads would use this new timekeeping system, while local time would prevail in the towns. To mitigate the time discrepancies, Dowd created a complex almanac that calculated the differences between local and standard times for thousands of cities along hundreds of railroad lines throughout America.
The proposal that was eventually adopted by the railroads is largely credited to William F. Allen, the leader of a prominent railroad trade association. In his proposal, the rigorous fifteen-degree time zone wedges are skewed and morphed to incorporate the major terminus stations of the railroad. White elaborates: The meridians indexing these zones were not of overriding interest to the practical-minded members of the GTC, however. In defining the zones, what railway managers valued highly was a system that minimized their switching costs—that is, a plan that altered existing time division breaks between railways as little as possible. Drawing upon existing railway maps, Allen proposed a system that fit the new zone boundaries to the termini of the railways. The Eastern and Central zones, for example, met at Pittsburgh, where the Pennsylvania Railroad’s two divisions had long switched from "Philadelphia time" to "Columbus time." Allen’s plan was designed so that no railroad would have to reprint schedules or change running times. Most would simply have to reset their clocks and watches a few minutes.
Thus, November 18, 1883 became known as the "Day of Two Noons." Across the US time balls fell once and then were reset to fall a second time at the new noon, an adjustment for what would quickly be known as Railway Standard Time. (Time balls were mechanical devices located on spires atop important buildings that “dropped” every day from precisely 12:00PM to 12:01PM. Citizens would reset their own timepieces by them.) Seventy of the one hundred most important railroad terminus cities changed their times that day, and most others did soon after. Although congress did not officially adopt the railroads' time zone standards until 1918, Railway Standard Time became the de facto rule across the country.
When comparing the various time conventions, Dowd's proposal is the antithesis of the hyper-local timekeeping conventions of his age: his scientifically-rigorous time wedges exhibit no concern for administrative boundaries, the idiosyncrasies of natural topography and hydrology, or the railroad companies' operational boundaries. Perhaps these limitations could be overlooked if the system greatly simplified the complexities of mediating the pre-existing hyper-local times conventions. But the complex translational almanac required to mediate the time discrepancies was impractical. Allen's system takes guidance from the scientifically rigorous fifteen-degree wedges of Dowd's (and others') proposal, but the boundaries are adjusted to cater to the major operational boundaries of the railroad. As described in the official map (above), time zone is indicated as colored railroad lines, not shaded regions. As such the map suggests that system did not require that every city adjust to Railway Standard Time. Still, the majority did, and this reflects the increasing importance of standardization at urban and territorial scales.
End of the Line
An essay titled “The Past and Future” published in the American Railroad Journal in 1855 captured the spirit of the age: It is impossible for any mind, however capacious and enlightened, to form anything like an adequate conception of what the railway in the next century may achieve. And, indeed, over the next century the railroad would effect development in every inch of the built environment and patterns of living in every corner of the nation.
At the turn of the century the railroad was the only practical method of interstate travel. To regulate an industry without any feasible competition, the Hepburn Act of 1906 gave authority to the new Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to regulate the railroads' passenger fares and freight shipment charges. In addition, the ICC forbade these companies from discontinuing passenger service when competition from cars and jets became more prominent.
The 1930s saw the peak of railroad mileage in the US, and in subsequent decades overall mileage and service declined. In 1929 there were over 20,000 passenger trains in daily use. By 1970 that quantity was down to 500. Automobiles became more commonplace and affordable. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 created thousands of miles of shiny new highways for those autos, and personal commuting and the trucking industry thrived. The Housing Act of 1949 paved the way for suburban home ownership, reinforcing the automobile as the primary means of transportation. The airline industry also expanded and became more affordable. Given the vast geographical expanse of the country, a plane ride often made more sense for time economy. There was an overwhelming shift in the way people traveled, but also in the way they lived, worked, and played. Modernity left the train behind.
In the coal-rich Northeast the shift to oil-sourced energy also took a toll on rail business. Throughout the mid-century railroads responded to developing conditions by merging with other roads and reducing passenger service. One such merger, approved by congress in 1968, allowed the joining of two competing lines in the Northeast: The Pennsylvania and the New York Central. For many reasons this was a disastrous decision and by 1970 Penn Central applied for bankruptcy. Similar to the auto industry bailout in 2010, the government was faced with the situation of a railroad too big to fail, and too flawed to attract any buyers. Thus the railroad crisis presented itself on two fronts—acutely with the failure of Penn Central in the Northeast, and more generally with the national decline of passenger rail services.
The solution was presented and acted upon quickly by the Nixon administration. Amtrak was formed to take over passenger rail services from the thirteen largest railroads, and Conrail was formed from the former Penn Central, as well as other bankrupt lines, to revitalize freight operations in the Northeast and Midwest.
Over time, Conrail proved to be very successful. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 provided deregulation of the railroads (the rates for which had been fixed by the ICC since the beginning of the century when railroads were the only feasible method of cross country transport) and marked a turnaround in profitability. According to Conrail: The Staggers Act made railroads more competitive with trucks by allowing them to price services, adjust rail rates, react to market conditions, and provide special contracts. Conrail was eventually purchased jointly by Norfolk Southern and CSX, thus returning the track, rolling stock, and operations to the private sector. It is generally considered a success story for timely government intervention to revitalize a failing industry.
Amtrak, however, is another story.
National passenger rail service began in 1971, and in nearly every aspect, it has had significant challenges. Amtrak's inherited passenger cars and locomotives from the same companies that had been uninterested in investing in passenger rail for decades and were naturally dated and in poor repair. It owned very few rail corridors outside of the Northeast, and the ones it did own were in shockingly terrible conditions. It had little means for substantial improvements for infrastructure or rolling stock.
Funding for Amtrak was, and continues to be, minimal. American cultural perception demands that the railroad be financially solvent, with no subsidy. However, no other transportation system in the US (or the world, for that matter) exists without public subsidy. US highways and airports receive much more government assistance, with much less criticism, than Amtrak. Moreover, low funding made, and continues to make, true investment in infrastructure and rolling stock impossible. Profitable routes in the Northeast subsidize lower profit routes instead of reinvesting in infrastructure improvements, which could improve service in the denser parts of the US.
Another challenge is the geography and low-density urban patterns of America, which are not ideal for robust passenger service. On many routes, service is limited to once a day or even just three times a week. Current travel times on some routes are longer than they were in 1970. Hurricane Katrina shut down service from New Orleans to Florida in 2005, and it has never been reinstated. Elsewhere, service is always in jeopardy pending local and congressional support. Outside of the northeast, Amtrak operates by mandate on other railroads’ tracks, and, naturally, those companies have very little incentive to ensure Amtrak has priority. On-time arrivals on most routes are non-existent, a pipedream.
In some ways Amtrak has been successful. The route from Washington to New York City carries 70% of commercial traffic between those cities, and the entire route on to Boston provides service to more than 10 million passengers annually. On these routes Amtrak actually owns some of the tracks and has more control over on-time performance. In a National Journal article, Simon Von Zuylen-Wood describes the Amtrak situation as a "chicken-or-egg" dilemma. Does Amtrak have low ridership because of its poor service, or poor service due to low ridership?
Conclusions from the Past, Perspectives on the Present
As we turn our attention from the past to the present it is worthwhile to draw some conclusions from the research presented in Part 1, and in doing so establish a perspective for the study into contemporary applications of high-speed rail in Part 2.
The importance of the railroad to the form and shape of early America (physically, economically, culturally, and socially) cannot be overstated. The train galvanized an American spirit of entrepreneurship, individualism, progress, and technological determinism towards an urbanism specific to the physical and temporal parameters of the railroad. The train and its station seeded an urbanism distinct from later modular pairs, such as the jet and the airport, or even a car and a highway. While these other mobility technologies would also come to inform American urbanism in the twentieth century, the implications of the train have been embedded in the physical, economic, social, and cultural DNA of the country well before the car and the plane and in ways that the collective American imagination has forgotten.
Sometimes it takes a fresh eyes to observe that which is most obvious. French philosopher John Paul Sartre’s travel essays, written during a trip to the US in the 1940s, document the importance of the railroad to the generation of form in American cities:
In order to learn to live in these cities and to like them as Americans do, I had to fly over the immense deserts of the west and south. Our European cities, submerged in human countrysides that have been worked over mile by mile, are continuous...We flew for hours between New Orleans and San Francisco, over an earth that was dry and red, clotted with verdigris bushes. Suddenly, a city, a little checkerboard flush with the ground, arose and then, again, the red earth, the Savannah, the twisted rocks of the Grand Canyon, and the snows of the Rocky Mountains.
After a few days of this diet, I came to understand that the American city was, originally, a camp in the desert. People from far away, attracted by a mine, a petroleum field or fertile land, arrived one fine day and settled as quickly as possible in a clearing, near a river. They built the vital parts of the town, the bank, the town hall, the church, and then hundreds of one-story frame houses. The road, if there was one, served as a kind of spinal column to the town, and then streets were marked out like vertebrae, perpendicular to the road. It would be hard to count the American cities that have that kind of parting in the middle.
Like the US, many countries in Europe and Asia have a deep spatial and economic history with the railroad. But unlike the US, nineteenth century Europe, and to a lesser extent Asia, were already significantly developed. There, hundreds or thousands of years of self-sufficiency informed the development of architecture, public spaces, urban morphologies, regional distributions of cities, and territorial relationships. Conversely, in post-frontier America, the hinterlands were immediately and fully plugged into a vast network of capitalist enterprise made possible by the railroad. Paris, London, Brussels, Madrid, Berlin, Tokyo, Beijing, and countless other cities were established as important urban centers before the American continent was even encountered by the rest of the world. As such, while in the US the conventional railroad produced new cities and patterns of urban development, in Europe and Asia the train acted as a disruptor, an agent of change and modernity within centuries-old cities. In the same travel essay, Sartre describes European cities to be “closed cities, full as eggs” while American cities are “formless and unfinished…haunted by the immense geographical space surrounding them.”
By the early twentieth century the golden age of the railroad in the United States had begun to wane. New trends in mobility, patterns of living, and national policies towards investment in highway building, aviation, and suburban homeownership aligned to hasten the demise of passenger rail in the US. Although the railroad network is still key for freight transportation, as many as 98% of Americans have never ridden an inter-city train. Those who have are using Amtrak, which struggles with the dominance of freight on shared tracks, systemic federal underfunding, and poor service frequency, among other issues that reinforce the notion of the train as a relic of the past, not a foundation for the future.
In most European and Asian countries, post-WWII investment in transportation included the railroad: subways, commuter rail, intercity rail, even national and international railroad networks. Beginning with Japan in the 1960s, carried on by France and Germany throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and implemented more recently by Spain, China, and South Korea, these investments were increasingly made towards new and upgraded networks for high-speed trains. In Part 2, we’ll examine high-speed rail in a variety of cultural contexts and from large scale to small scale. Of equal importance to the innovative methods deployed by designers to incorporate HSR into historic urban centers is the invention of rural and suburban HSR stations, and the new operative scales offered by the train’s high speeds. When distance is measured in minutes, not miles, the imperative of regional planning challenges the American tradition of planning (and governance) confined to city limits.
Perhaps most importantly, the case studies introduce an imaginary of the train as contemporary rather than nostalgic. In the US the train is a past. As Dana Frank writes: Trains tap into some deep American collective memory. Its relevance is tied to the gold rush, the settling of the West, or at best, the moan of a distant freight train at night. Or, in a more contemporary vision, of the inconstant silver Amtrak stranded on a side track waiting for freight trains to barrel passed. In Europe and Asia, the image of a sleek train zipping quietly through the city and country is cleaner, more progressive, and more hopeful than any other mode of transit—it is inextricably linked to a vision of the future.