Stephen Karlson (shkarlson) wrote in 50bookchallenge,
Stephen Karlson

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It's the end of July, which means Major League Baseball will be offering doubleheaders, these days that's an evil dictated by a 162 game season and a playoff schedule that runs almost to the beginning of Karneval, and doubleheader itself is borrowed from railroading, back in the day when the Superintendent could not connect units with an extension cord, but rather, had to call two crews and put two engines at the head of the train.  Thus, we'll offer Book Reviews No. 20 and No. 21, both by railroad writer Christian Wolmar, whose primary area of expertise is British and Continental practice.

The two books are Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railroads Transformed the World; and Engines of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways.  My post title suggests the universe of comparison: think R. S. Henry, a retired railroad executive who penned a series of popular-interest railroad books, including one with the title I borrowed for the post; he also wrote political and military histories of the Mexican War to Reconstruction.  Think also S. Kip Farrington, who wrote outdoor sports tales to accompany his train rides, although a Farrington book is a collection of shorter stories, without necessarily attempts to offer unifying themes, or analysis.  But books in the Henry and Farrington tradition are closer to the message Mr Wolmar seeks to offer than what you'd find in the academic analyses of regulation or merger, or to the nuts-and-bolts stories of technology and motive power the Trains, Tracks, and Travel series by T. W. Van Metre offered.  (Disclosure: your Superintendent effectively memorized a late 1950s edition of that book at the age of nine.)

Blood, Iron and Engines might be good introductions to the history of railroading, although the first time reader might want to trust but verify.  Cautionary example: the map of principal United States cross-country routes, at page xxii of Blood, Iron, shows the abandoned Pacific Extension of The Milwaukee Road but not the Great Northern near the 49th parallel, or the Overland Route across Wyoming, or the Water Level Route from Chicago to Albany.  More subtle example: it's difficult to write about railroading practice worldwide, when only North America, China, Russia, and to an extent Australia use their railroads primarily as heavy-duty long-distance freight carriers, while the European and developed Asian countries use them for passenger haulage.  That, however, makes discussion of an era of decline in (particularly investor-owned) railroads at the dawn of the Motor Age more challenging.  Yes, the United States put little public money into passenger rail, particularly at higher speeds; although, perhaps, the end of suburban electric railroads began with the Public Utility Holding Company Act, the sprawl and the interstate highways through cities won by default.

Likewise, Engines might attempt to do too much: the use of railroads in support of military logistics began in a simple fashion in Crimea; then Haupt and Grant and Sherman improved the concept on a continental scale to put down the Southern Rebellion.  But again, a quibble: a map of the Southern lines, which didn't connect well, and often involved a change of gauges, is incomplete, without awareness, for instance, of the Illinois Central from Chicago to Cairo, Illinois, making possible resupply of Grant and Sherman from Northeastern factories and Lakes area farms entirely by rail, as far into the southern states as they wished to operate, something the late-1862 moves on Corinth, Mississippi, had in mind.  Had the European powers understood the ability of railroads and quartermasters to work together, their twentieth-century wars might have turned out differently.  But again, Mr Wolmar's focus might be misplaced.  Battleship guns on flatcars, and nuclear-tipped missiles in boxcars, might be sexy, but although the troops generally fly or ride the bus today, their heavy equipment goes to the embarkation ports by rail.

Both books conclude with suggestions for further reading, and those sources might prove instructive to the budding ferroequinologist.  For the next level of analysis, I'd recommend referring back to my second paragraph, above.  Each also includes illustrations, some of obscure and interesting things such as the temporary pier railroad at Utah Beach.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

Tags: business, history, international, technology, war

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