historian, author, film producer

Category: technology (page 2 of 3)

Finding the Blue Ridge Tunnel Ruins

I asked Jean Bauer at the University of Virginia to search out the ruins of the Blue Ridge Tunnel near Crozet, Virginia, and to photograph the tunnel if she could locate it. I plan to include one image in my forthcoming book and hope to include more images in the Railroads site. At the time of its construction in 1850-54 the tunnel was the longest in the U.S. at 4,273 feet, and one of the longest in the world (see below for questions about the length). It was built with slave and Irish labor, a story not well known.

She has posted her adventure and some of the photographs on her blog — see “A Walk in the Woods” and her photographs of the Blue Ridge Tunnel.

The Wikipedia lat/long is incorrect. And Jean’s great images will give us some other views than the spooky image from the Library of Congress’s Historic American Engineering collection–where is that fog coming from!

Many of the records concerning this construction can be found at: Railroads and the Making of Modern America in the collection of Claudius Crozet’s correspondence and the payrolls of the Blue Ridge Railroad.

NET Interview with William Thomas and Leslie Working

LINCOLN, NE 1/9/10 (NET RADIO) NET Radio Interview with William Thomas and Leslie Working – By the end of the 1800’s, railroads connected the world. Now, the University of Nebraska is becoming a center for studying railroads with the support of a major international grant. Historian Dr. William Thomas is leading the project called Digging into Data. He and a group of UNL Historians, Computer Scientists, and Geographers will use the latest research techniques called Digital History. He explains a few of the details in an interview with NET Radio’s Jerry Johnston.

Did Railroads Transform the World?

British railroad journalist and historian, Christian Wolmar has just published a new book on the ways railroads transformed societies across the world: Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World. The Guardian and the Times have given Wolmar’s book very favorable reviews. Wolmar tackles not only the many changes that accompanied the railroads but also suggests the possibility of a revitalized rail transportation movement. He is right to do so.

Tony Judt in this week’s New York Review of Books also suggests that the recent history of railways in Europe demonstrate the failures and inadequacies of privatization movements. Many leading European nations and the United States have privatized whole areas of previously public services, sometimes surrendering vast sums of capital in the process. Railroads, Judt points out, are a social service, and act as a social good. While it might be inefficient to run railroad to rural areas, he points out, their service indicates and enables a higher level of of social intercommunication.

On a recent train trip to Chicago I was struck again by the huge investment earlier generations made in the rail systems and infrastructure of the U.S. Americans poured their creative energies, talents, and capital into the railroads–building and designing landmark architecture, most visibly, and erecting and improving complex networks of rails, bridges, and warehouses. Americans also of course poured out their sweat and blood to build the railroads. Even a casual look, however, at the architecture of Chicago’s Union Station or a trip to see the Burlington Zephyr at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry will reveal something of the scale of the railroad investment made in American society. When we consider the reach of these investments–into places such as Livingston, Montana, or Roanoke, Virginia, where world leading architects designed railroad depots–we begin to see how far-reaching and important these developments were for communities. We have privatized much of this investment and turned to other public endeavors. Judt and Wolmar are not the only voices suggesting we revisit these social commitments, but their recent contributions are exceedingly important and useful.

Harriet Martineau, the “Martyr Age” of the U.S., and Railroads as a Social Force

In 1857 Harriet Martineau, one of the most prolific and influential political economists in Great Britain, turned her attention to the influence of railroads on nations and their development. Railroads constituted one of the most important developments of the time as they soaked up capital, labor, and resources. She considered the vast railroads underway in the United States, Russia, France, Germany, and Great Britain to be indicators of the societies in which they were built and operate. The railroads mirrored the values of each society.

Impressed with the massive projects underway in the United States, such as the Illinois Central Railroad, Martineau thought Europe’s political and commercial leaders should look at the “political and social consequences of the laying open of the diverse regions of the great continent” of the U.S. as an example. The American railroad scene, she thought, would “suggest to us Europeans a new aspect of railways, which certainly was never dreamed of when they were projected, and which does not seem to be duly considered even now.” Indeed, Martineau argued, “It would be useful to us to consider railways, both philosophically and economically, as exponents of the social systems under which they arise, and are intended to work.”

Because Martineau lived for two years in South Carolina during the nullification crisis of 1832, went on several American tours in the 1850s, and was a leading expert on political economy, she possessed unusual authority on American affairs. She wrote over 1,600 articles for the London Daily News on American developments in these years, and many others as the European correspondent for the New York Anti Slavery Standard. She maintained significant trans-Atlantic associations. A Garrisonian abolitionist, she corresponded with Maria Weston Chapman, Charles Sumner, and William Lloyd Garrison.

Martineau compared the “republican railway” in the U.S. with the “autocratically or constitutionally governed country” in Russia. She saw American railroads as locally managed, built, and controlled, a virtue that represented the republican nature of their origins. The U.S. railroads were unlike the rest of the world’s because most of the roads were not made with the intention to profit in dividends but instead to develop the surrounding areas. The developmental nature of American railroads stood in stark contrast, Martineau wrote, to the English system which was overbuilt with “needless lines” along major routes and with little concern for local development.

Martineau’s concept of railroads as representations of the moral, social, and political world had wide significance. She articulated what many felt–that the huge investment in railroads would extend and support other aspects of the socities that produced them. In the American South, this idea implied that railroads could enable slavery. An edited collection of Martineau’s voluminous correspondence has just been published and in its four volumes we can see just how widely influential Martineau was in her times–Deborah Anna Logan’s The Collected Letters of Harriet Martineau (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007).

A few years later when the U.S. split into warring sections, the events of the war pushed to the side theoretical discussions about railroad development and Martineau found herself translating American views to her British political associates. Martineau viewed the American Civil War as the culminating event for slavery in what she called the “martyr age” of the United States.

Martineau commented on every aspect of the Civil War, but she became especially active during the Trent Affair. Martineau knew Wilkes personally and had introduced him to the Admiralty in 1836. Neither a filibustering pro-Southerner nor a coward, Wilkes was, she explained to her British friends, “ignorant & wrong headed, & has been in hot water 100 times before.” She used her London Daily News editorials to downplay the warmongering rhetoric over the Trent and explain the North as a society in chrysalis stage, awakening to its rights and responsibilities once free of the “Slave Power.”

Unitarian in her beliefs, and consistent in her abolitionism, Martineau had great expectations for the American war. Diagnosed with a fatal malady in the 1850s, she removed herself from London society and conducted almost all of her work from her country home in the Lake District. With her niece by her side, Harriet Martineau defied her medical prognosis and lived for another twenty years. She received guests continually as her health allowed, including among others her friend Richard Cobden, the free-trade Liberal M.P., and William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State.

Well before the 1860 presidential election, Martineau had determined that America would enter a period of conflict and renewal. The coming struggle, she thought, would be led by American women, especially Maria W. Chapman, whom she considered the “greatest woman . . . on record” whose name “will by and by stand beside Washington’s in history, as the deliverer of her country the second & greater time.” She wanted to shape American and British public opinion about the war. To do so she had to explain the English view of the war to her antislavery American correspondents and the American view of the war to her British editors and literary friends. Martineau held out great hope for the war to cleanse and “regenerate,” as she put it, American society.

When her friend Florence Nightengale expressed profound dismay at the outbreak of war in the United States, Martineau replied that she was “anything but unhappy” because it portended “the resurrection of conscience,” and what she called “the renewal of the soul of the genuine nation.” She welcomed the “destruction” which she thought would “overtake the wicked.”

Martineau was convinced in April 1861 that the South would collapse quickly and that the Confederacy could never sustain a war against the North. “I much doubt whether there will be a war,” she explained to her editor Henry Reeve. Once “pressed” the South could not stand. To those in Britain who considered the Southern Confederacy an embryo nation, such as her rival editors at The Times, Martineau scoffed at “slap-bang ignorance” that pervaded reporting on America. The “charming notion of a triumphant Southern Confederation” offended her. From the beginning of the conflict she greatly underestimated the South’s capacity and will for war, seeing divisions along class lines as the Achilles heel of the South’s slavery-based society. Unconcerned with servile insurrections or other nightmare scenarios that frightened August Belmont and even haunted Richard Cobden, Martineau disparaged the “mean whites” of the South whom she thought “barbaric & corrupt” and, as she explained to Florence Nightingale, the “very lowest specimen of the white race, –almost of the human race.” These men could hardly be classified as citizens, she believed, and would never serve consistently and admirably as soldiers in war.

However misguided her reading of Southern white society as divided, ineffective, and afflicted with “utter helplessness,” Martineau was unusual in her total and complete certainty that slavery would perish with the war. Rather than the sentimental abolitionism of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Martineau adopted a realistic assessment of the war. The old union with its compromises to accommodate slaveholders was not only dissolved but also gone and never to return. The war would regenerate and replace the flawed, old compact with one free of slavery. In this way the North would slough off its long, twisted complicity in Southern slavery and stand before the world in the vanguard of civilized nations. Attempting to persuade her conservative editor, Henry Reeve, she explained her efforts to make others see this truth: “My business now, on both sides the water, is to hold up the fact that the struggle has become altogether revolutionary.” Emancipation was “inevitable.” To explain why more Britons did not see this simple fact, she reminded Charles Sumner that “ninety-nine in a hundred [American commentators] insist, loudly & persistently that the war is not for the abolition of slavery; & that it is fully intended not to abolish it.”

When the prospect of English recognition of the Confederacy developed in the summer of 1862, Martineau detected a change in British views on the American war. No longer quite as sanguine, she had become “sick at heart” over the violence, but she also saw that the Americans did not feel the same way. “Between the virtuous glow of patriotism in some, & the delight in excitement in others, & the intoxication of passion in a multitude,” she explained to her editor after the Battle of Shiloh, “they do not seem to suffer as we do. They are evidently unconscious of the singular horribleness of the conflict.”

Martineau perceived the American willingness to slaughter one another and tolerate high casualties as evidence of the national purposes at stake, and while Europeans shrank from the bloodletting she embraced it as a necessary step in the end of slavery. She thought that the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point, slowly adjusting British views on the American war. By December the change was faint but discernable. She reported “a reviving Anti-slavery feeling, disbelief in the South, & more respect for the North.” To Florence Nightingale she summarized the shifting ground: “The proper English antislavery feeling is reviving; & people begin to see now how little the South is worth, — that it can’t fulfill its boasts, –that it is hopelessly divided on the very question of State Rights, –& that there is no society there really civilized in its organization; while there is no question of Slavery being irretrievably doomed.”

For Harriet Martineau the Emancipation Proclamation redeemed Northern society and gave vindication to over twenty years of moral reform efforts. “The thing that I & my political & private friends there care about is secure,” she explained to a British friend in the summer of 1863, “–the repentance & amendment of the Free States after their long & unworthy submission to the domination of violence & wrong.” The long walk of the North in moral darkness because of its complicity with slavery had ended, and the liberation of the North prompted Martineau to explain to her editor that “it was always the whites that I cared most about.”

Martineau was one of the leading anti-slavery advocates of her day, and she considered the South, despite its extensive railroad system, a civilization not worthy of consideration because of slavery. Its railroads, build by slaves, did not resemble the republican-oriented developmental railroads such as the Illinois Central. But her statement to her editor that she cared about moral position of the whites in the North than the injustices of slavery for blacks in the South reveals the contradictions that swirled through the American Civil War. Martineau’s letters reveal her as a determined advocate and a passionate and astute opinion maker. She recognized several important truths at the heart of the American conflict, and at the same time she missed others.

Re-examining South Carolina’s Secession–the story of the Blue Ridge Railroad

If we are to explain South Carolina’s secession in 1860, we might look more closely at its fractious legislative struggle over railroad development. South Carolina, like Virginia and Georgia, embarked on major railroad projects aided by state finances and backing. These projects aimed to break the mountain barriers separating them from the rest of the South and fulfill the idea that Nature favored their region, a persistent theme in the late 1850s among Southern expansionists. It became an important refrain in the years leading up to secession. The political implications of the notion could not be ignored: they hinged on what Nature bestowed and how people reconfigured Nature to their own advantages. The basis for most of these claims came from the experience with railroads. Up and down the mountainous chain separating the seaboard from the interior, projects got underway in the 1850s to break through Nature’s barriers and substitute for them a second Nature of rails, tunnels, embankments, grades, and structures.

The South Carolina Blue Ridge Rail Road, for example, was planned to connect Charleston to the west across the mountains, much like the Virginia project to tunnel through the Blue Ridge and the Baltimore and Ohio’s effort to break through the Alleghenies. For South Carolina the stakes placed on the Blue Ridge Railroad were especially high and so were the expectations. The road’s new president, Edward Frost, a Charleston attorney turned railroad investor, argued that once built the railroad would reshape the geography of the state and that “Charleston will then be 46 miles nearer to Knoxville than Richmond and 96 miles nearer than Savannah.” Both of these rival cities with their railroads had drawn off the trade from the West and left South Carolina imprisoned by its mountains. He urged that stockholders and legislators to look at a map and they will see that “without the Blue Ridge Road, Charleston and South Carolina have little opportunity of sharing in the advantages of a commercial connection with the navigable waters of the West.” In fact, Frost argued, the neighboring states constructed railroads that “belt” South Carolina and once North Carolina completed its work “then the cordon of railroads around South Carolina will be complete and close.”1

If the state was about to be shut off from the modern commercial economy developing on its very borders, enabled by the railroad’s capacity to conquer nature, then South Carolina, according to Frost, had the opportunity to open itself up. He would not predict the Blue Ridge Railroad’s earning potential once it was completed because the importance of the road would be measured “by the trade which it will, in time, attract.” He pointed out instead that other railroads outperformed even their most optimistic projections and he concluded that a maxim could be drawn from these comparisons: “railroads create the trade they need.”

The idea was alluring. It went beyond confidence or optimism. It was understood as a kind of natural, economic, and technological law whose operations were in effect whether the citizens of a state or city wished it or not. Frost pointed out that wheat traveled 456 miles from Knoxville to Richmond, and much of it further to Baltimore. “Why may not Columbia, having advantages of water power greater than Richmond, and as favorably situated, not manufacture wheat, with a carriage from Knoxville of 321 miles?” Frost asked.

South Carolina’s isolated position on the ever-changing map of railroad growth in the 1850s worried Frost. He cautioned his stockholders as well as the public and the legislature that the state was one of the smallest “in territory and one of the least in white population, while it is one of the wealthiest, of the Southern States.” Only “moral force and character” had allowed it to remain a leader, but railroads and the reconfiguration of the South with them threatened South Carolina’s position, and presumably its wealth. The Blue Ridge, he argued, was too large in scale for private capital to complete. The railroad was a “great national highway, uniting the geographical divisions of the continent, across the great mountain barrier which separates them.” And railroads of this magnitude, including those already built by neighboring states and others under construction, “superseded” every other mode of trade. “Commerce is no longer dependent on the natural advantages of sites at the estuaries of large streams,” Frost maintained, “Even the Mississippi cannot protect New Orleans from the successful rivalry of railroads.”2

Despite the excitement and progress on the Blue Ridge tunnels and tracks in 1858, the road again needed more capital by the end of the year. Frost and the company’s directors appealed to the state legislature to amend the original charter and authorize another one million dollars in state aid and bonds. The fight in the Legislature over the Blue Ridge Railroad funding grew heated and intense debate followed. Men who had supported every other railroad in the state turned against the Blue Ridge. They maintained that the road was too expensive and too speculative, that it could never pay for itself, and that if private capital could not be raised then the state should not built it. Supporters held that the state debt would not be materially affected by an additional two million dollars, that the state could (and probably should) raise taxes, and that other southern states were taking on similar levels of state aid. They pointed to Georgia which invested $5 million in the Western, and Virginia which spent $3 million on its Blue Ridge Railroad and Tunnel and was busy undertaking a $12 million project on the Covington & Ohio. Besides, the bill’s proponents argued, the State legislature was already spending $3 million on a lavish new state house widely seen as an extravagance.3

When the legislature of South Carolina voted to withhold continued public support for the Blue Ridge Rail Road in late 1858, all of the work on the railroad and the tunnel stopped. The Charleston Mercury mocked the legislature and the railroad’s critics as shortsighted and foolish. Who would not “feel ashamed” of the “inconsistency and irresolution” that the state “has exhibited before the world?” the Mercury asked. Too many of the state’s leaders, it argued, were measuring the impact of the railroad “by the little pocket rule of immediate dividends.” Instead, “we look upon it as a project on a grander scale, and destined to confer measureless benefits–social, political, and commercial.”4 In the South Carolina House, Christopher Memminger argued that “modern nations,” like the ancient Greeks and Romans before them, build monuments to “their genius and enterprise,” but the abandonment of the Blue Ridge left “half finished tunnels,” “crumbling bridges, and ruined cuts through hills and mountains” as a monument to the state’s “inconstancy and feebleness.” Whether South Carolina could avoid isolation and encirclement and join the rapidly evolving Southern railroad commercial network remained an open question after 1859. In the coming years South Carolina’s desperate need for a unified South only grew more pronounced.5

The prominent railroad engineer and friend of John C. Calhoun, A. H. Brisbane was appalled at the turn of events. Brisbane asked his South Carolina readers what Calhoun would think if the state did not support the railroad to connect to the rest of the South. Calhoun was its first visionary and “to the hour of his death its unceasing supporter.” Brisbane appealed to those who voted against the state support to reconsider their position and to ponder Calhoun’s legacy. Could it be, he wondered, “they have already forgotten the man whose reputation, even now when he is dead, is defending them in their dearest rights.”6

To white South Carolinians, Brisbane’s reference to rights could mean only one thing: the right to hold slave property. To be sure that they understood Calhoun’s linkage between these rights and the railroad economy he hoped to develop in the South, Brisbane conjured up the Calhoun who had walked the passes of South Carolina and Georgia and who in planning the route with Brisbane circled Rabun Gap on a map and exclaimed: “There is your gap, there is the great pass; there the mountains recede . . . as though they invited the States of this great confederacy to pass and repair them.” Calhoun had great faith that the railroad would bring the South to “the gates of Cincinnati” and that even though “we may fail sir, in our endeavors now, but the result must come, and our industrial independence be secured by this boon of Providence–this inexplicable pass, through a mighty range of mountains, unless for some great moral purpose, such as is now proposed.”

In this context South Carolina had a choice, according to Edward Frost, the railroad’s president. It could go forward with the Blue Ridge Railroad, bore through the mountains, and reap the potential advantages of altering nature’s barriers, or it could “recede from the position of moral eminence she has heretofore occupied, and be reconciled to a diminution of her political power and consequence proportioned to her territorial area.”7

The choice was implied for the South as well. The language, ideas, and practices of the local conflict could jump tracks and become an important resource in the South’s claim to nationhood. City and state rivalries within the South translated arguments easily to the sectional or national competition. South Carolina’s leading men were aware of the consequences of their state’s isolation. And although conservative Democrats remained suspicious of state development schemes, enough to finally block the Blue Ridge’s financing in 1859, the questions raised by the railroad projects were profoundly significant for South Carolina. They indicated the ways railroads were reconfiguring the nation’s borders, geography, and commerce. The debates in South Carolina coming as they did on the eve of the 1860 presidential election, moreover, rehearsed a series of arguments that would emerge in the following year over the best means to ensure the South’s future wealth and independence. They also revealed the slow process of reshaping identities. Because the railroads connected places, linked subregions, and crossed natural barriers, their potential prompted a series of questions for those who supported and opposed them: what is our region, who are our allies, and where are we going?

Notes and Sources:

1 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

2 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.

3 For a collection of criticisms, see the series of articles by “Nolumus” in The Charleston Mercury in “The Blue Ridge Railroad” Special Collections, University of Virginia Library. “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 30, 1858, Issue 10,427, Col. C.

4 “The Blue Ridge Railroad Enterprise,” The Charleston Mercury, December 28, 1858, Issue 10,425, Col. C.

5 “Speech of C. G. Memminger, Esq. In the House of Representatives, of the Bill to Afford Aid to the Blue Ridge Railroad,” The Charleston Mercury, January 10, 1859, Issue 10,436, Col. C.

6 “General Brisbane’s Compliments to the conductors of the Press,” Charleston Mercury, June 1, 1859, Issue 10,558, Col. D in Nineteenth Century U. S. Newspapers. See also, Betty L. Plisco, The Rocky Road to Nowhere: a History of the Blue Ridge Railroad in South Carolina, 1850-1861 (Salem, SC: Blue Granite Books, 2002): 69-73.

7 “Report of the President and Directors and of the Chief Engineer to the Annual Meeting of the Stockholders of The Blue Ridge Railroad Company, in South Carolina, held in Charleston, the 10th of November 1858,” The Charleston Mercury, November 13, 1858, Issue 10,388, Col. B.