What I’m Reading: Blood, Iron, and Gold

Blood, Iron, and Gold, by Christian Wolmar, is a straightforward history of the railroad. It’s thorough and clear, with a minimum of editorializing, content to be simply a lucid survey of a somewhat niche subject. I know right now that not a lot of people are going to be interested in the topic, but this is the kind of thing I eat right up. I think the subject dovetails with my interest in cities and urbanity, and I found this book endlessly fascinating.

The first real modern railway was the route built in 1830 between Liverpool and Manchester, which consisted of iron rails, a double-tracked line, and trains powered by steam. But there had been precursors going back to the 17th century, when mines in northern England and Germany would build wooden tracks for mules or horses to pull carts laden with coal to the surface. Eventually, these “wagonways” were linked up, forming early lines in coal-mining areas. Experiments with using steam engines in the 1820s failed because the heavy equipment tore up the wooden rails–iron rails were the key. Engineer George Stephenson was the one who was able to put it all together.

The 31-mile Liverpool & Manchester line had been built to bring cotton (grown in the American South) from the port of Liverpool to the booming factory city of Manchester, and finished linen goods back to Liverpool to ship out to the world. But what surprised early managers of the railroad was that passengers flocked to the line, providing an even greater income stream than freight. Early passengers traveled to Liverpool to see the horse races or public executions, but soon English towns began building attractions to entice visitors. Before the 1830s, travel for pleasure had been reserved for the wealthy, but the arrival of railroads brought with it the inauguration of mass tourism.

By the 1850s, there were railway booms underway in Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, and the United States. I’ve encountered the story of building the first transcontinental railroad across the U.S. in the 1870s before, although Blood, Iron, and Gold provided new details. What I hadn’t read about was the building of the Canadian transcontinental lines, a more difficult feat than the U.S. experience. Of course, both projects paled compared to Russia’s construction of the Trans-Siberian railroad across eleven time zones. By the end of the century, British colonialists were on their way to building the world’s most extensive railway system in India. The story of building the Argentine network was also quite interesting.

But the episode in the book I found most fascinating was the building of a railway across Panama in the early 1850s, decades before the canal was built, but serving the same primary purpose–shortening the travel distance between the two coasts of North America. The construction of the Panama railroad was hell on earth. At one point, twenty percent of the workforce was dying every month. The biggest killer was disease, as cholera, malaria, dysentery, smallpox, and even fevers they couldn’t identify took their toll. But if disease didn’t kill you, the various poisonous snakes and insects would, or perhaps the numerous gators who hung around the edge of the construction site. Many workers committed suicide, unable to bear heavy labor in the hot and humid environment. Especially tragic were several hundred opium-addicted Chinese workers who came over, only to find there was no opium available locally. Their death rate was so high that the American managers paid for them to be sent to Jamaica. It took five years to finish the 49-mile route, with perhaps 6,000 men dying during its construction. After its completion, though, it became the most profitable railway in the world in the second half of the nineteenth century.

As I said at the beginning, I know this book won’t be for most. The average person will likely find the subject boring. But for those interested in the history of transportation, cities, or the industrial revolution in its first truly-transformative phase, Blood, Iron, and Gold will be of immense interest and I definitely recommend it.

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