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Tag: railroads (page 2 of 2)

Did U.S. Railroads Own Slaves–How Many?

The short answer to this important question is that Southern railroad companies owned many slaves and built most of their lines with enslaved labor. The question, however, has not been fully researched and for years we have known little about this experience or the scale of the railroads’ involvement in slavery. We know that southern slaveholders were the principal stockholders and directors of many railroad companies and that the South moved quickly in the 1830s to build railroads. Southerners built some of the earliest and longest railroads in the nation. By the 1850s southern railroad construction was in full swing, with crews grading thousands of miles of track.

Although historians, such as Allen Trelease, Robert Starobin, and Walter Licht, have acknowledged the presence of slave labor on Southern railroads, we have little sense of its overall dimensions or its relationship to southern expansionism of the 1850s. One historian, Theodore Kornweibel, has recently begun to research in detail the southern railroads’ use of slave labor. Kornweibel found documented evidence for slave labor on over 75 % of southern railroads. He has also estimated that over 10,000 slaves a year were working on the railroads in the South between 1857 and 1865. These figures seem entirely plausible and accurate.

A careful examination of railroad annual reports from the South begins to reveal the scale and diversity of the experience. Most of the slave labor on southern railroads was hired or rented from local slaveholders to grade the tracks. Enslaved women and children were also forced to work on the railroads, running wheelbarrows, moving dirt, cooking, picking up stones, and shoveling. Some skilled slaves, especially blacksmiths, were hired as well on these construction crews. 

But railroads began buying slaves outright in the mid-1850s. Only after the Civil War did these railroads have to reconcile their assets and liabilities to account for the loss of slavery. The Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad President, for example, reported after the Civil War on the railroad’s investment in slaves. “We find from the books,” he explained to the stockholders, “that there has been invested in negroes, in Georgia, the sum of $154,348 and negroes sold amounting to $32,805.25 leaving negro investment $121,542.71.” The investment, he noted, “is now, manifestly, a total loss.”

Railroads, it seems, bought slaves both in large groups and one at a time. The Richmond and Petersburg listed 114 “slaves” on its payroll of 191 employees in 1864. The railroad purchased its first slave in 1856 for $1,070, listing the expense in its annual report as “a negro man purchased.” By 1860 some railroads were buying slaves by the dozens. The Mississippi Central bought 21 slaves in one purchase and 31 in another in 1860. Mississippi Central Railroad, Contract for SlavesIts 1864/65 annual report from the company treasurer listed in the balance sheet on the liabilities side “Account and Bonds of C. S. and cost of Negroes now free  $585,237.” In an action that clearly indicated the intentions of the slaveholding railroads, the Louisville, Cincinnati and Charleston directors authorized a large purchase of slaves in 1841. The chairman of the board, Alexander Mazyck, proposed a resolution that the Board “be authorized as soon as the means and credit of the Company will permit, to purchase for the service of the Rail-road, from fifty to sixty male Slaves between the ages of sixteen and thirty.” It was adopted without argument or amendment.

Railroads in the South owned and hired slaves on a scale we have generally forgotten. By the 1860s the Southern railroads were among the largest slaveholding and slave employing entities in the region, as a group they eclipsed the largest individual planters. Recent historical research has begun to uncover just how far the practice extended. The implications of this form of slavery, however, need further examination. We need to know more about the use of slaves by railroads, the jobs they performed, and their experiences.

Southern Slavery and Modernity?

When The Railroad Advocate, a trade journal published out of New York, wanted to assess the state of southern railroads in 1855, the editor, Zerah Colburn, sent a special correspondent on a tour of the South. What’s surprising is just how different these reports were from the classic and well-known travel account of Frederick Law Olmstead, A Journey In the Seaboard Slave States (1856). Olmstead’s view was that southern roads were poorly built and inefficiently run, a symbol of wastefulness that he thought characterized much of slavery-based southern society.

But Colburn’s correspondent reported a different story. On the Seaboard and Roanoke, a road Olmstead traveled too, he found it “well managed” and “well constructed.” The locomotives were built by the nation’s finest manufacturer, the shops were equipped with “the best tools.” The entire enterprise was impressive. On the North Carolina Central, a road over 200 miles long and without a grade exceeding 50 feet and laid with the best 60 pound iron rails available, he discovered “one of the best constructed [roads] in the country” running locomotives from the very best manufacturers. Indeed, they were the most “beautiful machines in the country.”

When he arrived in Savannah, Georgia, moreover, the railroad station there stunned and surprised him. “To say that Savannah, Georgia, is likely to have the most complete and elegant railroad station in the country (besides being one of the very largest) may be a matter of some surprise to northern and western railroad men.” The building was 800 feet long and 63 feet wide, designed in a modern style and rivaled only by a few stations in the nation, the ones in Boston and Baltimore. The road was equipped with engines exhibited at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition. The yards included 6 parallel tracks, with over three miles of railroad, a remarkably large and extensive facility. The shops held the best work benches and lathes in the business, “the best we’ve seen.”

All of these railroads were both worked and made possible by slave labor. According to Colburn’s journal, Southern railroads had achieved through slavery an extraordinary level of quality construction at half the cost of northern and western railroads. And the low cost of construction through the use of slaves prompted “astonishment in more northern communities.” There was much to admire about these southern efficiencies, Colburn wrote: no contractors scamming the roads for high profits, no inflated costs and padding of contracts, no secretive promoters keeping the public at arms length while they engineered a boondoggle.

In 1855 then the South’s railroads appeared the envy of the nation, built at a level of efficiency no northern line could manage and equipped at the very highest levels of quality. Although Olmstead was critical of southern trains, the rates of delay and inconvenience were not so different from travel in the North.

Historian Mark Smith (Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery, and Freedom in the Antebellum South, University of North Carolina Press, 1997) has examined the ways that slaveholders adopted modern technology and time keeping techniques for their bound labor. In every respect Smith argues that the South was adapting these devices at the same rates and with the same effects as the North.

So, we need to revise our view of the South as a place resistant to modernity because in many ways it makes it too easy to dismiss the antebellum South as doomed to extinction or incompatible with modern America. The South wanted modern progress, was complicit in it, and embraced it. That it did so with slavery at the core of its economic and social structure should give us pause. Slavery probably would not have died out on its own in the South, at least not because of modernity and its progress in the form of railroads, telegraphs, and cities.

Although we must consider more evidence than Colburn’s The Railroad Advocate and recognize the biases of these pro-railroad development journals, we should at least understand that southern modernity appeared quite differently to Americans in 1855. When the best engines in the world were outfitted on Southern lines, when the longest tunnels in the world were excavated with slave labor, when the greatest and most modern architectural designs were drafted for Southern railroad stations, few observers probably missed their significance for the way the white South understood itself. We should try to recover this lost sensibility of the South’s commitment to modernity, because among other reasons it will make us see the Civil War, when it did come, in a different light.