Tonawanda News — The Erie Canal was completed in 1825, Buffalo becoming the linchpin in the travel of goods between the Midwest and the Atlantic ports. Out here, we learn that by the fourth grade. Within six years it had competition, a rail line constructed from Albany to Schenectady, and that’s when things got complicated, interesting, ludicrous and prolifically scandalous, and it’s why Timothy Starr’s “Railroad Wars of New York State” is a satisfying little recounting of the machination of the state’s railroad millionaires.
There was money to be made in building railroads and hauling America’s bounty. Oh boy, was there, but it was a cutthroat game, full of duplicity, bribery of judges and legislators, stock manipulation, conspiring plutocrats, warring plutocrats, rail yards with cannons and other defenses, battling labor unions and hired thugs acting as policemen.
If you’ve ever been in an old urban train station and noticed the architectural style was similar to that of a cathedral or a European parliament building, you’ll understand the scope of the money, bravado and egomania in 19th century railroading.
Starr’s entertaining book is decidedly not about nostalgic rides on the rails, but about ruthless people doing ruthless things with stock swaps, junk investments and back-room deals. That money was poured into the pockets of elected officials throughout all of this is a given. To his credit, Starr does not offer much condemnation of the procedures of the railroad business. Getting a favorable legal ruling by handing a pile of money to a judge was the way these guys did things.
The book is short, and thus offers an entry-level view of this bustling, if cynical, era of American history. Scholars have written longer, denser views of the topic, but this is a great place to begin to understand not only how railroads grew and impacted the growth of the United States, but the intertwining of government and moneyed interests which continues today (if you think millionaires get richer by placing a single phone call to a legislator, this is the story for you).