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Thoreau’s View of the Railroad

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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.  Using inspiration and access to the extensive collections of the Library 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 the time.

What’s The Railroad To Me?

What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing
Walden, H. Thoreau

Title page features a drawing of a cabin surrounded by trees
Title page of Henry D. Thoreau, Walden; or life in the woods, 1854, showing Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond, Massachusetts.

Henry Thoreau (1817-1862) was a transcendentalist writer, poet, and naturalist who felt that progress exists in relation to the individual as the personal attainment of peace and serenity. He thought that it was in the best interest of individuals to live a life that was true to themselves, and he embodied this ideal by living his life as a symbol for the ideals he advocated. While in his late twenties, he spent two years in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, living alone in a small cottage near Walden Pond.  He sought, in his own words, to live “deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (1) He detailed his experiences in Walden, or Life in the Woods, which he published in 1854.

Brief statement of facts in relation to the proposed rail-road from Boston to Fitchburg. 1842.

What was the impact of the railroads on Thoreau? The first engine and train in America, the DeWitt Clinton, was introduced in 1831, when Henry Thoreau was a mere 14-15 years old.  By the time he withdrew to the simple life at Walden Pond, the railroad had been around for a decade. The Fitchburg Line and its trains, which Thoreau could hear from his home, had only been proposed in 1842, and were built by Irish laborers. In 1843, an estimated thousand Irish laborers were at work on the Fitchburg Line, which extended the rail line through Concord.

According to newspapers from June 1844, the train made its first stop in Concord that month, breaking the “repose of that quiet, venerable town” and passing “by the clear waters of Walden Pond …”  According to Michael Harding in The Days of Henry Thoreau, “Fitchburg Railroad steamed regularly past the opposite end of the pond.” (2)

print features people standing beside a railroad around in Victorian dress
The Locomotive on Railroads’ Battlefield. An Address before Princeton University in the Cyrus Fogg Brackett Lectureship in Applied Engineering and Technology delivered on April 14, 1931. In [Railroad pamphlets. Part 2]. 1842-1945. (17 items) CLC Ft Meade Spec Mat
Although Thoreau was not diametrically opposed to the railroad, he lived before the great growth of the railroads and the large environmental impacts.  Still, he criticized it for being a false notion of progress that depleted the body and mind of the individual. The railroad was seen as an enormous boon and was soon being used to send parcels as well as people.  Thoreau complained that he could walk to nearby Fitchburg faster than riding the train and enjoy it more, too. He argued that when one walks by foot they have the freedom to forge their own journey, whereas when one rides the railroad they are subject to the predetermined path of the rails. This scene from American Autumns by J.F. Cropsey shows how he might have seen the railroad from a distance and then turned his back on it to enjoy the natural beauty instead.

Lithograph with a panoramic scene of a valley with mountains in the background and a man in the foreground looking off into the distance
American Autumn, Starucca Valley, Erie R. Road / J.F. Cropsey, 1865. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs,

Despite his proclivity to prefer communion with nature rather than increasingly industrialized civilization, Thoreau’s attitude toward the railroad was foremost one of ambivalence, though he still concerns himself with how the railroad relates to him.  In this manner, Thoreau may have hoped for the coexistence of the railroad with nature, but he knew better than to assume that they might exist in total harmony. Instead, he was pessimistic of the actual effects of its excess. In his words, “…it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!” (3) Thoreau feared that the railroads might coax the individual into denying their individuality such that they might spend their lives living for something that wasn’t worth living for. He argued that if one were to really live, they ought to do what is required of them by their own nature, rather than that of anyone else.

Michael Sconzo’s blog post on Thoreau will be continued in part 2, THOREAU’S VIEW OF THE RAILROAD; Thoreau, the Railroad, and the Cost of Industrialization.

Lithograph features many trains two are moving in the same direction with steam coming from the stacks while people and railroad workers mill around
American railroad scene: lightning express trains leaving the junction. Currier & Ives, 1874. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs,

We give you these items from the Library’s collections to inspire visions and thoughts of the early locomotives and railroads, and their impact of the time.

More railroad and locomotives prints, photographs, and images can be located through the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs catalog, available at:

For poetry of the railroads you may be interested in the following books:

Sanger, W. Cary. Tides of Commerce: Verse of the Railroad. (1916)

Byrne, C. J. (Christopher James).  Rhymes of the Rail: Poems. [2nd ed.] (1917)

Poole, Peggy.  Marigolds Grow Wild on Platforms: An Anthology of Railway Poetry.  (1996)

Sheasgreen, Ed. E. (Edward E.).  Switch Lights (1902)


1  Thoreau, Henry D. (1976) Walden or, Life in the Woods (pp. 109). Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library.

2 Harding, Walter Roy.  The days of Henry Thoreau: a biography (pp. 498). Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press, 1982.

3 Thoreau, Henry D. (1976) Walden or, Life in the Woods (pp. 141). Franklin Center, PA: Franklin Library.

Comments (3)

  1. Michael – i enjoyed your article very much. Words of wisdom for the ages, know and be true to thy Self.

    Best Regards,


  2. D. B Johnson’s award-winning children’s book, Henry Hikes to Fitchburg, charmingly reinforces Michael’s blog on Thoreau’s thesis about the railroad. (LC call number: PZ7.J6316355 He 2000 FT MEADE). Henry loved to take long walks in the woods and to write about the animals and plants he encountered in his travels. And Johnson quotes from Thoreau:

    “One says to me, ‘I wonder that you do not lay up money; you love to travel; you might take the cars and go to Fitchburg today and see the country.’” But Thoreau points out that he is wiser than that. “I have learned that the swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot.” He notes that his friend will have to work all day to earn the 90 cents to go from Concord to Fitchburg by train. Instead, by walking to Fitchburg, picking blackberries, enjoying the birds and the flowers, Thoreau will enjoy every moment of his day. And he won’t have had to spend a cent. His friend, however, will have to work the greater part of the day, if he is lucky enough to find work.

    I have given this book to countless children.

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