Railroads in the Antebellum South

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 169-171:

In 1849, [Georgia] was ahead of all southern states in rail mileage and estimated to be ranked third or fourth among all states in the Union. When the Western & Atlantic was completed in 1850, the company was still seeking more state appropriations, and there were still those who thought it could be better managed by a private concern than by the state. But many thought its shortcomings were based on unrealistic public expectations. Compared to most, it was a successful railroad indeed. Wrote the Macon editor: “Great confidence seems to be felt in whatever Georgia lays her hand to. I have often heard it wondered how the citizens of Georgia had succeeded so in building railroads, keeping out of debt, and making their roads pay well.” The reason was that Georgia, as its governor noticed in his 1855 address, had a “definite system” and a “uniform principle” in granting railroad charters. It had supported railroads with state aid and management without going overboard in doing so.

Already the myth of southern backwardness was strong in the North. Amid the tensions of the 1850s, which would lead so soon to civil war, the South defended itself partly by pointing out how well it had done in railroad building. “It is fashionable,” wrote a man in Louisville, “for a certain class of people at the North to taunt the people of the South with a want of enterprise. It is regarded as necessary to establish the evils of slavery, that it shall be shown that it encourages indolence, and represses enterprise; and to illustrate the truth of the positions assumed, the superior progress of the free States in railroad building is cited as proof positive.” History proved that false. The South had built some of the first railroads and some of the best railroads in the United States.

It was also false that southern railroads ran well because northern men ran them or because they used northern supplies and equipment. There were southern ironworks and southern locomotive and car builders. The South argued that slave labor would be a great advantage in railroad building. Just as cities were buying slaves to do urban tasks, so railroads would in the future, and the institution of slavery would become less tied to plantations and the growing of cotton. Northerners were speculators, and eventually there would be proof that the more conservative way the South had proceeded in building railroads was best. It had largely avoided the “chaos of panic and bankruptcy” that characterized northern rail enterprises….

Southern railroads were slightly slower in schedule than northern railroads, but they were safer and more comfortable. The food “would be hard to boast of,” but it was tolerable. The pace at depots in the South was more relaxed, with none of the “running headlong, with coat tails flying,” typical of boarding a train in the North. The conductor boarded the passengers in a leisurely way. Then “the whistle gives a gentle toot, and gradually, as a duck swims against a current, the train moves, and nobody is in a perspiration; no one has lost his baggage, or torn his clothes; no one is left lamenting his hard fate in being a moment too late.” Once aboard a train in the South, the passenger found sociable fellows, and the black “servant” who carried water, apples, and oranges through the cars also distributed ice cream. It made travel by rail actually enjoyable.

Far from being a sideshow, railroad development in the South provided a viable alternative to the way things were practiced in the North. Its example gave a strong indication that there was more than one way of adapting to railroads. The technology did not itself dictate its appropriate uses by people and states.

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Filed under economics, industry, slavery, travel, U.S.

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