Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Classic---The American Railroad Network, 1861-1890

The American Railroad Network, 1861-1890, George Rogers Taylor and Irene D. Neu, Harvard University Press; 1956, Arno Press, 1981; University of Illinois Press, Paperback/Map edition 2003, 113 pp., notes, index, two maps, $19.95.

It speaks well of The American Railroad Network that since its first publication in 1956 it has been republished twice and by two different publishers. Offering an historical antebellum background to the railroads that existed at the beginning of the war, the authors focus upon the dominance of local and regional economic markets. The clear and concise first chapter sets the groundwork for railroad improvements in general and the conversion of the fragmented and non-standard gauge of railroads in 1860. The value of this book for the Civil War reader is the charts and maps.

The United States contained seven different railroad gauges in January 1861. There were 350 railroad companies with 34,250 miles of track. A bit more than fifty percent of track was 4 feet 8 1/2 inches between rails and was owned by 210 of the 350 companies. The other 140 companies with a little less than fifty percent of the track and their gauges were between 4 feet 9 1/2 inches to 6 feet even.

By 1861 no part of the U.S. was more adequately provided with railroads than southern New England and the northern mid-Atlantic states. The first railroads were built in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with the 4 feet 8 1/2 inch gauge. This gauge migrated to New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. New York state contained three gauges, which hindered the quick transport of goods by rail. Pennsylvania's railroads, like New York's, were segmented by regions. Those in the eastern part of the state were and went north and northwest were for the anthracite coal trade and Philadelphia centric. Those tracks running west from Philadelphia sought access the Susquehanna River Valley's lumber trade and westward to Pittsburgh. Alternative gauges found in Pennsylvania were from Scranton northward toward the Hudson River Valley and from Pittsburgh westward to the Ohio River Valley.

Gauge barriers existed at the western gateways of Buffalo and Erie along with Pittsburgh, Wheeling, and Parkersburg. Significant gauge barriers occurred in the Midwest, throughout the South and in particular, Southern cities. The authors examine Richmond and Petersburg Virginia in particular. In both of these cities local interested prevented the linking of railroad lines. This stance was endorsed by the Virginia legislature which enacted laws that allowed cities to forbid railroad companies from using the cities' streets. The citizens of Petersburg loathed any attempt to connect the railroads in Petersburg with the railroads in Richmond.

In general the Civil War broke down regional and urban competition such as existed between Richmond and Petersburg. Military needs trumped civic economic needs. The federal Union's pursuit of the Transcontinental railroad's construction during the war on the 4 foot 8 1/2 gauge pressured new railroad construction to accept this gauge as the standard. The authors show how the federal Union solved the gauge differentials during the war by compromise, designing sliding wheels and car hoists.

Authors offer two maps that reveal exactly railroad companies' gauges as they existed on April 1, 1861. One fold out map shows the companies and gauges from the mid-Atlantic east and southeast coast to the west shore of the Mississippi River. A second fold out map shows the companies and gauges from Maine to Washington D.C.

The American Railroad Network, 1861-1890 offers a succinct discussion of the dilemma of railroad gauges during the war and the solutions which the war forced the railroad companies to accept. The maps are large fold out maps that are clear and easily studied. It is an essential book for Civil War enthusiasts who are curious about the logistics of supplying 100,000 man armies.

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