American Railroads: The True Story of Hell on Wheels

| tralev | books | carson city |
American Railroads Cover

I bought American Railroads by John F. Stover at the Nevada State Railroad Museum when I was in Carson City. Although this book has little to do with Carson City or Nevada directly, the railroad played such a significant role in the development of the United States that this book certainly felt worth reading.

In the early parts of this book, I was reminded of AMC’s Hell on Wheels. I am sure that AMC took some artistic liberties in the development of the story but it was nice to see some familiar names in this book. In fact, this book tells the true story of Hell on Wheels and the aftermath. It is slightly less dramatic, and at times flat out boring, but still a great story nonetheless.

This book was originally published in 1961. It was a bit strange to read when the author mentions the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s when referring to 1870, 1880, and 1890 respectively. The second edition of this book which is mostly the addition of the last two chapters which cover the later parts of the 20th century felt like they were just shoved in without much thought or effort decades after the book was written.

One turn off early on were the strange racial undertones in both the foreword by the editor and in later parts of the book by Stover himself when referring to Native Americans as “the Indian Menace”. It was annoying that Native Americans were portrayed in such negative light while romanticizing the destructions of their lands and portraying railroad developers as some sort of heroes. Despite this romanticization, Stover did an excellent job discussing the rampant corruption in the railroad industry. So many of American tycoons made their wealth from the railroad. Their names still appear on universities, buildings, and companies decades later. Many do not know about the dastardly things that some of these “great men” did in order to get where they were.

It is remarkable how similar the railroad industry is to the modern tech industry. It was one of the first growth industries where instead of Monthly Active Users the measure of success was miles of track. Companies that provided the same service cropped up and laid track for the sake of laying track. Proprietary (read incompatible) hardware was used for no great reason. Not only were companies literally reinventing the wheel in order to compete, this made it difficult for other lines to cooperate with each other and created a poor experience for many customers. A few venture capitalists walked away with billions while others went bankrupt.

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This book highlighted one of the best arguments against government regulation, or at the very least a consistent review of past regulations. There were many crippling regulations, but one of the most absurd was that “a days pay for a days work” was measured in miles rather than hours. This metric was not updated for decades despite the fact that the speed at which a train was able to cover X miles increased significantly during the same time period. These regulations drove many companies out of business.

The history of the railroad industry in the United States is fascinating. It is arguably one of the most important technological advances of our time. There is a lot that we can learn from the rise, decline, and rebirth of the railroad industry. It provides some hard lessons in free market capitalism, the unintentional negative effects of government overregulation, and the necessity to continuously adapt to market demands (as the freight industry did) instead of lamenting and fighting against disruptive new technologies. We can learn from some of the mistakes form the original growth industry so that we do not make them again in our modern digital “railroad”.

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