Tonawanda News

November 12, 2012

BOOK NOOK: They were working on the railroad

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The Tonawanda News

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).

It helps that Starr is not a professional historian but an enthusiast with a financial background. While those may not be ideal credentials for an author of history, it makes the book readable and uncomplicated, and this reviewer considers that an asset.

Jay Gould is here, as is Cornelius Vanderbilt, Erastus Corning, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Pinkerton Detective Agency, guys with steamboats on the Hudson River whose livelihoods were undercut by price wars with the railroaders and no lack of other scheming, manipulative people.

It was a heady time, watching pompous millionaires lose major chunks of net worth the day after a competitor bought or sold a block of undervalued or overvalued stock. These were men who ruined their business competitors, then awaited the revenge, a Wild West atmosphere in the offices of Albany and Buffalo and a Mad Max vibe in the strike-ridden rail yards once the working people woke up to the available riches.

The book handles it all admirably. In a number of places I would have preferred more detail, but that is available elsewhere. I also noted a distinct lack of humor. There are few anecdotes and little irony, but the story itself is surreal in its scope — the way the railroad business did business set the tone for federal and state legislation proscribing business practices in general — and any laughter in the book comes from the audacity of the connivers running the rails.

As such, it’s a splendid book, the gateway to understanding the local version of what it took to unite the United States by rail. Buffalo is prominent, as is Attica, Dunkirk, Rochester and everywhere else freight and passengers needed to be collected or unloaded. It also offers the reasons behind government regulation, its necessity and its implementation. The roots of left-versus-right in America are here, and while Starr’s book is intended to scratch the surface and no more, it’s an entertaining and informative introduction to one of this country’s more compelling topics.

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.

• WHAT: "Railroad Wars of New York State" • BY: Timothy Starr • GRADE: B

Ed Adamczyk is a Kenmore resident and can be contacted at EdinKenmore@gmail.com.