American Achievements Not To Be Repeated

Since the meltdown on ’08 there has been tremendous commentary about the role of capitalism and government in the US economy.  There have been the usual calls from the usual people that we need more government involvement and regulations to monitor and dominate all aspects of American industry.  Those cries and snipes at private business were exacerbated by the BP spill and its aftermath.  Government and industry can work together to achieve great things and we have in the past but they were not done with government controlling everything with central planning. 

The tremendous industrial output during WWII and the early days of the space program are two of the most notable accomplishments of government and industry working together.   Today there are those who don’t want a productive partnership with business but rather wish to hold business in thrall to Washington and work only to produce monies to be disbursed as Washington thinks fit rather than for private profit.

Probably the most notable and successful joint venture of government and private industry was the building of the great Pacific Railroad.  That was the name given to the rail line that was to be built connecting Sacramento with Omaha.  A big supporter of that goal was Lincoln.  He was promoting the idea even before he was elected.  After all, most folks forget that he made his money and reputation as a lawyer representing railroads in Illinois, not representing the little people.   Of course most people in the country were for the idea.  After the gold discoveries in  California and the Forty-niners most realised we had a great untapped resource in the West.  

The legislation originally approving the line was passed during the War.  It naturally was not going to be built by government as the government had not industry but contracted out to private enterprise.  The US by this time already had more rail lines than any other country in the world due to our size and the tremendous growth in our population and industry.  The Union Pacific was to build the line going west from Omaha and the Central Pacific was to build the line going east from Sacramento.   The Union had the easier route because it mostly covered flat ground and prairie whereas the Central had to cross the great Sierra Nevadas. 

It is over simplying things but basically the Union line was built with Irish workers and the Central was built with Chinese labor.  The Central did not have to contend with hostile Indians but very rough terrain.  The Union did have to cross the Rockies but did so at the lowest and flattest spot that it could find.  They also had to deal with Indian raids on the workers and the stock. The Union had to protection of the Army but the distances were so great that it was always spotty.  The Indians never fought pitched battles but rather would make quick strikes to steal horses and cattle.  On  such raids they did kill many of the workers.  It was always the outlying parties that were attacked.

The operations and funding of the rail line have been so distorted by revisionist historians over the years as to completely paint a false picture of the deal struck.  These were the beginning days  of what came to be known a bit later as the Robber Barons of Industry.  So many professors tell their students that the line was built because the government gave the land to the railroads and then  gave them the money to build it.  Not quite true.  Yes, the two railroads were granted alternating tracts along the line of a section each and in addition the US government issued them bonds for the financing.

As we drive along the interstates in our Range Rovers these days it is hard to imagine just how vacant and wild that land was they were to cross.   The land was worthless and would only have value after the road was built.   Even then it would take decades for the people to come.  The fact is the pioneers setting out for the West is more myth than fact.  The overwhelming majority of people lived east of the Mississippi and remained there.  Relatively speaking it was a handful of folks that ventured west of the great river even after the one railroad line was built.   The record is clear that the railroad did sell some of the land but they did not get rich doing that.  In fact those railroads and their successors held some of that land well into the later parts of the 2oth century.  Just look at a map of where the line went and you will see why the land had minimal value.  Draw a line more or less straight from Omaha due west to Salt Lake City and then on over Nevada to Sacramento and you’ll see that it is still mostly vacant land even today.

The workers had backbreaking jobs.  The pay was low but better than most would find anywhere else.  Especially in the Union railroad the top spots and even the supervisors spots were all filled with ex-military people from the War–mostly Yankees but Confederates also.  Everything had to be shipped from Chicago or further east to Omaha then over the river then to the new line as it was laid.  Our front there would be the teams grading the line-to-be.  Look at a rail line today and you will see it isn’t just thrown down on the ground but the earth is prepared with gravel or crushed rock.  Then they had to lay the ties and last came the actual rails.  The entire system was highly organized and the timing was exquisite, it had to be. When they reached really level ground they would do a couple of miles a day, in 10 foot increments.  More of the story later.

One of the early founders of the Central Pacific was named Stanford.  He was already a successful businessman and one of the few to hold onto his wealth even after the financial difficulties that visited both lines later.  He became the founder of Stanford University.  It’s a little school out in California.   www.olcranky.wordpress.com

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Filed under business, Economics, geography, government, history, Politics

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