Not long ago while thumbing through the History Book Club’s catalog of monthly offerings I happened to spot a brief blurb for Christian Wolmar’s Blood, Iron and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World. Based on what little I read the book sounded mildly interesting. Therefore I thought to myself to someday read Wolmar’s book should I ever get the opportunity to do so. Soon after that my interest was piqued after the book was briefly mentioned in a local op-ed piece. Then one day as luck would have it, I found a copy during one of my frequent trips to the public library. Taking a chance of Wolmar’s book I grabbed it. After finishing it what seemed like months ago I’m happy to say Blood, Iron and Gold is a readable, engaging and straight forward history of the railroads and how they helped create the modern world we know today.
Wolmar book starts with the railroads humble beginnings as a simple conveyance to haul mined ore to the surface. Then in the middle of the 19th century as the industrial revolution moved into high gear first in Europe later in the United States, nations began to build extensive rail networks. Not only could these steam-powered railways ferry raw materials, finished goods and fee-paying passengers across the land, they allowed monarchs, prime ministers, presidents and autocrats to not only bring settlers and immigrants into their sparsely populated regions but also transport armed troops to rebellious provinces with unprecedented speed to squash uprisings and separatist movements, thus helping create the modern, centralized nation-state.
Contributions of the world’s railways would be far-reaching, resonating well into the present day. Our current internationally recognized system of time zones owes it’s existence to the railroads and the need to coordinate a coherent timekeeping system across an extended rail network. Fresh milk and produce could be brought from farms to cities. Workers could commute from the periphery to the central core. The written word, raw materials, finished goods and tourists could travel virtually anywhere and with amazing speed.
But there would be negative contributions as well. In America, a corrupt cabal of “robber barons” and other powerful plutocrats after first coercing the government into subsidizing the nation’s first railroad networks would later go on to use them as a tool to handsomely line their own collection pocketbooks. In places such as Panama, India and Africa, construction deaths due to disease, accident, (and in the case of Africa believe it or not lion attacks) took a staggering toll. In Europe, the railroad’s ability to bring massive amounts of armed men and material to an area quickly but openly and without surprise would grant a signficant advantage to a defending army but not an attacking one, would be a major factor contributing to the years of armed stalemate on the Western Front. In the next war, it would allow the Nazis and their allies to transport millions of Jews and others to their deaths with horrible efficiency.
As impressive as the railroads were, relatively speaking their heyday as the dominant mode of transportation would be a short one. With the advent of the internal combustion engine and the economic stagnation of the Great Depression, by the first third of the twentieth century the railroads were already beginning their slow decline in economic importance. While experiencing a brief resurgence during WWII due to their ability to transport humans and goods with considerable energy efficiency, the post war period, especially in America would belong to the plane, truck and family car.
Volmar’s book is good and I’m glad I read it, especially after NPR did a short series on Morning Edition on American railway history. Considering it could have made for very dry reading I have to say I rather enjoyed it. It’s not flashy nor is it a page-turner. But it is one of those fairly meaty and informative books one can pick and spend a few quiet evenings curled up with and reading. And believe me, when is that ever a bad thing ?