Revolutionary Objects: The Transcontinental Railroad System That Almost Wasn't

Boats were, in fact, a proposed alternative solution.
By Malcolm Harris,

It's easy to take the objects around us for granted, to assume we know how they came to be, and to forget the extraordinary roots of ordinary things. Stories of invention are often hard to verify because every new idea stands on the shoulders of older ones and they make for great urban legends. Adding to the trouble, some of the true tales are too good to be believed, while others are so counterintuitive as to make you reach for your Snopes. But the origin stories of simple household objects sitting in plain sight can tell us more about the past (and the present) than we might imagine. Here are a few unlikely lessons from handy things.

They say necessity is the mother of invention, but they don’t say whose necessity. Conventional wisdom holds that the American transcontinental railroad was the necessary infrastructure for populating the territories, but some scholarship has cast doubt on that premise. In American History class, we learn that the 19th-century rail system connected the country's territories by increasing national mobility enough to conquer the West. In retrospect, it looks like the only possible solution to the historical situation. After all, what were we going to use, boats?

Boats were, in fact, a proposed alternative solution. Instead of corporate railroads traveling over land, some policymakers envisioned American production linked through a system of waterways and canals. Canal expansion was a central part of Henry Clay's "American System" proposal, and had he found his way to the White House we might be talking about how boats won the West. In the 1960s, economic historian Robert Fogel ran the numbers and argued that, had we invested in them, canals may have handled westward expansion just as well as the rails did. So if it wasn't necessity, why the railroads?

While railroads are ordered and predictable, canals are less so. Smugglers have a hard time building their own trains, and tracks generally go only where they're supposed to. In his book Transportation and Revolt: Pigeons, Mules, Canals, and the Vanishing Geographies of Subversive Mobility, Jacob Shell argues that railroads triumphed over canals in part because the latter "sparked romantic associations with gypsies and exotic races; fearful associations with disease, smugglers, and criminality; religious associations with moral depravity and Satanism; and political associations with anti-imperial groundswells." The fears weren't totally unfounded: In 1866, a small army reportedly made up of Irish-Americans, Mohawk Indians, and black Civil War veterans used boats to invade (not yet independent) Canada, temporarily seizing Fort Erie. These Fenians tried to commandeer the railroads too, but to no avail.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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