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Thoreau’s View of the Railroad: Thoreau, the Railroad, and the Cost of Industrialization

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Michael Sconzo

Today’s guest post is by Michael Sconzo, an intern from the University of Virginia in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.  It is part 2 of his post on THOREAU’S VIEW OF THE RAILROAD.  Using inspiration and access to the extensive collections of the Library of Congress, Michael was asked to write blog posts on the theme of transportation.  After reflection, he chose to write on the impact of transportation in the form of the railroad and views on it by preeminent poets of their time.

If we do not get out sleepers, and forge rails, and devote days and nights to the work, but go to tinkering upon our lives to improve them, who will build railroads? . . . We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. (Walden, p. 111)

In Walden, Thoreau’s critique cleverly invites us to think about the costs of the railroad via the labor used to build them.  Before publication of Walden, he may have read the debates regarding the building of a railroad line linking to the Pacific.  One if its main proponents, Asa Whitney, had presented a proposal to Congress in 1845 for a transcontinental railroad and had published a booklet in 1849, entitled Project for a Railroad to the Pacific.  This began the great push to build the transcontinental railroad, and would lead to the heavy use of immigrant labor to lay the tracks that united the two coasts.  In this passage (above), sleepers refer to the wooden planks that are laid down on the track before the rails are put on, but Thoreau also references the workers that are exploited by the excessive labor of the railroad. Here, Thoreau demonstrates the irony of “progress” as it seems that laborers end up serving the railroad rather than the other way around.  The railroad laborers earned 50 to 60 cents per day and lived in shanty-towns; meanwhile, a smaller number of industrial capitalists were to reap the majority of the benefits.

Lithograph scene of a train at night stuck in the snow with men shoveling snow off the train tracks
American railroad scene: snowbound. Currier & Ives, 1871. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs,

His distrustful relationship with the railroad was eased by his admiration for the lighter side of the materialistic values that he so often criticizes.  In his chapter “Sounds,” he writes, “Commerce is unexpectedly confident and serene, alert, adventurous, and unwearied,” and speaks of admiration for, “three-o’-clock in the morning courage,” of the snow plow men (p. 144). He goes on to consider the “stores which go dispensing odors” that remind him of “foreign parts” and “the extent of the globe” (p. 145).   Further, he acknowledges the role of the railroad in facilitating the national standardization of time that would expand punctuality. To this end he says, “…thus one well conducted institution regulates the whole country. Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented” (p. 143)? In this positive sense, the railroad exists to Thoreau as a means of uniting people under common standards, by spreading worldly goods, and by facilitating a determination that pushes man beyond his comfort zone.

print with a mother and two young children and a dog waiting and waving at a train at a mail stop
Fast Mail, c1875. Prints & Photographs Div., Library of Congress.

Thoreau undoubtedly acknowledges the sense of discipline and worldliness brought on by the railroad, although he neglects considering these to be the unequivocal signs of progress that have been suggested by the growth of materialism in the United States. Thoreau is critical of this materialistic mindset as having been fueled by excessive luxuries that distract man from what really matters. On this line of thought Thoreau writes, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor” (p. 15).

It was not until 1862, the same year as Thoreau’s death, that Congress would pass legislation to fund the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific Railroad, would race to lay tracks that would finally meet on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. Chinese immigrant laborers made up the majority of the workforce employed by the Central Pacific Railroad and Irish and other European immigrant laborers formed the majority of the Union Pacific workforce.

Eight decades later Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), poet, Pulitzer Prize winner, and Librarian of Congress (1939-1944), had his own view of the cost of the railroads.  In his poem “Burying Ground by the Ties,” (From Frescoes for Mr. Rockefeller’s City (1933), which he read at the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium (min: 37:10), MacLeish uses the same symbolism as Thoreau regarding the cost of the laborers of the railroad. Shocking the current reader of poetry with his racial slurs, he says of immigrants “It was we laid the steel to this land from ocean to ocean; It was we (if you know) put the U.P.* through the passes.”

Print of men beside a train track as a train goes by
“Across the continent, the snow sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 27, 1878, p. 128-129.

“Ayee! Ai! This is heavy earth on our shoulders:
there were none of us born to be buried in this earth:
Niggers we were, Portuguese, Magyars, Polacks:

We were born to another look of the sky certainly.
Now we lie here in the river pastures:
We lie in the mowings under the thick turf:

We hear the earth and the all-day rasp of the grasshoppers.
It was we laid the steel to this land from ocean to ocean:
It was we (if you know) put the U.P. through the passes.”


*(U. P. is the Union Pacific Railroad)

The Library of Congress provides the largest collection of ready-to-use primary resources for teachers. Discovery the quick and easy way to use primary resources in your classroom with teacher guides related to immigration.

Interested in hearing more poetry readings?  The Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature at the Library of Congress contains nearly two thousand recordings—of poets and prose writers participating in literary events at the Library’s Capitol Hill campus as well as sessions at the Library’s Recording Laboratory.



Thoreau’s View of the Railroad

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you Michael for sharing this word-picture of the railroad era. It brought to mind subsequent periods of “building” infrastructure here in the US. Electrical lines, interstate highways, telephone, computer lines, airlines and with Kennedy, putting our national consciousness on the moon through vicarious teleportation with television.

    To what degree have we continued to exploit those who completed the drudge-work involved? If we were to define a pattern, I think we can say that raw exploitation has been lessened, compared to the Chinese and Irish mentioned by Thoreau.

    But now that we collectively face self-driving vehicles and machine learning, where do the “left-over” humans fit in at all regarding the profits derived from technology? Are we back to what drove Thoreau to describe death as the reward for hard work laying the rails?

    Clearly, our culture needs education on who merits the rewards that arise from the labor of an entire culture or civilization. Why the few when the many clearly provided the gene pool? It’s the gene pool from which statistical processes deliver the extraordinary minds of a generation. It’s the gene pool, not the individual that delivered that moment of invention.

    It’s the culture that provided the intellectual infrastructure for supporting the invention, not the individual. It’s the mass of consumers that make the market. No genius using artificial intelligence will make his millions selling in Antartica, or in Yeman at the moment, for that matter.

    And yet, we have no cultural mechanism for acknowledging the contribution of the context. We have taxes, but with diminished impact on the wealthy, as we witnessed in the last several generations since Regan.

    It’s time we acknowledge the contribution of the everyman to technological advancement. Let’s consider the depletion of wealth to the common man as an outcome of increased technological competence. With AI, machines will soon invent more machines. Who should profit? The one man or one company, or all men and all companies. I vote the latter, because it was the all men and all companies that gave rise to the new developments.

    I mentioned the “depletion of wealth” due to automation. Yes, we do have mention of the issue of depletion in our US tax code. How many have knowledge that the US government subsidizes companies with a depletion allowance: “a tax concession allowable to a company whose normal business activities (in particular oil extraction) reduce the value of its own assets.”

    Let’s apply that depletion allowance to the labor market. Money gained by automation should be paid as a tax concession that returns money to the populace. This acknowledges that automation reduced the value of human work. For proof, we need go no further than observing the reduction of salaries associated with the increased “service industry” or the “gig economy” to see future trends.

    Thank you Michael. Thank you Thoreau and Archibald for making a point of the sleepers buried under those other sleepers that are under the rails.

    I hope the sleepers can awake before they get buried in our new era.

  2. Thank you Michael. A clean clear presentation.thought provoking. My Irish ancestors came here to USA. Laid rails in New York State. Pick axe. Shovel. Blood. Muscle. Read your blogs. Reawakened my sense of pride in these immigrants.


  3. 90 years after the Central pacific Completion I worked for 40 cents an hour as an usher for a theater in Florida (36 hours week) . Ten years
    later the US Army payed workers 70 cents a day to Change truck tires.
    In Viet Nam .Workers are still being exploited today by American Industry as if we still had slavery. If you want better working conditions,
    Benefits and a living wages form a Union.

  4. I’m curious about the mention of Chinese labor. Union Pacific used Chinese labor and many were killed when others thought they were driving down wages. See Wyoming PBS on The End of the Line.

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