If you thought Halliburton abusing the tax payers was something new and different, think again. Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow, by Dee Brown, is a history of the building of the transcontinental railroads. It starts in 1854 and proceeds in detail until the 1890s, then hurriedly summarizes until the 1970s. (The book was written in 1977.) And Brown shows, repeatedly and at length, how the railroad builders screwed the American public time and again.

In fact, reading this book made me very very angry. It’s the same old story: a bunch of rich men want to get richer, and figure out ways to use the public purse to make money. In this case, there were three main ways that wealth was moved from the taxpayer to the wealthy: scams building the railroads, land grants, and high railroad rates. Brown examines all of these in some detail, and sometimes the disgust just made me squirm. He also, towards the end of the book, examines some of the political reaction to the railroads: the Grangers and the Populist Party. And he covers at least some of what the railroads did to the Native Americans.

However, he also intermingles first person accounts in this story of perfidy. Whether it is stories from the immigrants, the first riders of the transcontinetnal railroad, the railroad workers, or the Congressmen who authorized the land grants, he quotes extensively from letters and speeches. In fact, he might go overboard in the quoting department; I would have appreciated more analysis of some of the statements.

Brown does include some very choice, precient statements though. In chapter 11, talking about Pullman’s improvements, a French traveller said “…unless the Americans invent a style of dwelling that can be moved from one place to another (and they will come to this, no doubt, in time)…”. In chapter 12, a fellow was travelling on an immigrant train and was happy to be separated in the mens’ car because he “escaped that most intolerable nuisance of miscellaneous travelling, crying babies.”

I learned a lot from this book, both about American history and the railroads. In large part, the railroads made the modern west–I 80 follows the path of the Union Pacific, and Colorado Springs was founded because a railroad magnate owned chunks of land around the area. It’s also always illuminating to see that, in politics as in everything else, there’s nothing new under the sun.


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