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.
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.
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.”
“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)
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- Thoreau, Henry D. Walden or, Life in the Woods. Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library, 1976. (Free editions of Walden are available in HathiTrust Digital Library.)
- Hedin, Robert. The Great Machines: Poems and Songs of the American Railroad. Edited by Robert Hedin. Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1996.