BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Sarah Gordon, can you remember the first time you got interested in railroads?
Dr. SARAH GORDON (Author, "Passage to Union"): Well, I never had a
choice in the matter because my younger brother lectured me on railroads from the time
he knew how to speak. He memorized schedules and would spend most of his
time telling the rest of the family what time a certain railroad stopped in a
certain town in Louisiana in 17--in 1873 or something of this nature. So
there was never a time when I wasn't aware of railroads, so...
LAMB: Where were you living?
Dr. GORDON: Philadelphia. We lived near the Queen Lane Station. My
father always liked to say we lived next door to Grace Kelly, but we, in fact,
lived in a rented gatehouse of an old Philadelphia estate that was long gone.
And the gatehouse was owned by Germantown Friends School on Wissahickon
LAMB: You had quite a station there. Is that a union station in
Dr. GORDON: Philadelphia, of course, has--is a union st--today the phrase
`union station' doesn't mean very much. It used to refer to the fact that
they were trying to bring more than one line into one station so that
it would be convenient for the passengers to change trains. But since most of
the passenger system is now either local or Amtrak, `union station' is just a
phrase for a big station these yeah.
LAMB: Where do you live now?
Dr. GORDON: I live in North Haven, Connecticut.
LAMB: What do you do?
Dr. GORDON: I teach history. I teach European and American history to
ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th high school students, and I teach women's history
and American history to --at the college level.
LAMB: Do you ride the trains --today anywhere?
Dr. GORDON: Well, I rode the train coming down to Washington, of course.
I would prefer to take the train than drive through Manhattan.
LAMB: Why, in your opinion, haven't trains expanded rather than reduced
the number of opportunities we have to ride them?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, I think it's a very complicated issue, but--and it depends on
what period of time you're talking about. But if you go back to the time when
the railroad track system was at its height, they really lost the interest of
investors. You know, the investors started to move over to cars and roads
because they could see that there were profits in new purchases and new
services. I think as services get older, the arena for profit through
investment starts to become less. I'm not certain about this from the
economic point of view, but it appears to be the case that when the investors
lose interest a whole service can just lose its purpose for them.
LAMB: On the cover of your book it says "How the Railroads Transformed
American Life, 1829-1929." I want to get a close-up here of this picture here
and ask you: Where is that from?
Dr. GORDON: Where is 1829...
LAMB: No, where the picture on the cover.
Dr. GORDON: Oh. The picture, of course, is the meeting of the two parts of a
transcontinental railroad--the first transcontinental railroad, and that's
Promontory, Utah. It's the desert, if you--this is a very good reproduction.
You can see that it's sand at the bottom. And the--one of the trains, I
believe the one on the left, is the Central Pacific train and the one on the
right is the Union Pacific train. And this is the meeting for the driving of
the Golden Spike in 1869.
And we have the workers on the two teams--they were racing each other to see
who could lay the most track. And as a matter of fact, they went right by
each other because they kept building right by each other because they
wanted more money for more miles of track. But finally, they did arrange for
a meeting at Promontory, Utah. And then in the middle there, you find--I
believe Leland Stanford is one of the people in the pictures, the--one of the
presidents of the Central Pacific Railroad.
LAMB: Now why these years 1829 to 1929 for your book?
Dr. GORDON: Well, I find that it's hard to pick a year--particular year when
something's i--things are rapidly changing and i--but 1829 is pretty much when
the first track was being laid, 1828, '29, that was to be passenger railroad.
Any earlier track was either in the nature of toys, things in people's back
yards for experimentation, for iron mines, for quarries and coal mines,
things of that nature. But this is the beginning--I think it's a reasonable
date for the beginning of the passenger service. Excuse me.
LAMB: What got you going on this book itself?
Dr. GORDON: The book itself? Well, about five and a half to six years ago, I
went to the American Historical Association convention in Manhattan and Ivan
Dee was there. I knew him when I was in Chicago--I worked for him--but he
started a new press since then--Ivan R. Dee Publishers, and since he was just
getting started, he was looking around for authors and asked me to send him my
dissertation, which I did. And I sent him an outline of how I would like to
develop it. And that's how it came into being. He gave me a contract about
five and a half years ago.
LAMB: Who's Ivan R. Dee?
Dr. GORDON: Well, he was a member of the original Quadrangle Press, which
named after the University of Chicago Quadrangle, I believe, and was a Chicago
press. And The New York Times, as far as a I know--and I'm not an expert on
this subject--bought the Quadrangle Press, but Ivan didn't want to go to New
York with the press because his family was in Chicago, so he stayed behind.
But he's, as far as I know, a very well-known man in--among publishers. And
now he's started a small press in Chicago which deals with historical books
but for a broader audience than just an academic audience.
LAMB: Do you talk to your high school students about trains?
Dr. GORDON: Well, I've talked to them a considerable amount about this book.
I--they've been kind of involved at every stage in the sense that I've shown
them things--I've took in the manuscript and they read some of the manuscript
aloud. And then when I got a proof of the book cover, I took that in and it's
posted in the school office. And then when the book came out, the school
actually sent out some publicity to all the--all the parents of the students.
They were quite pleased to have this happen. And they've read some of the
reviews and so forth, so they're very--quite involved in it, yes. And I've
even told them how they--every writer gets edited and they shouldn't feel
badly when the teacher says there's something wrong with your paper, that
there's always something wrong with a written work, that it can always be
improved and so forth.
LAMB: What was the most interesting thing for you to do in all this?
Dr. GORDON: In the entire...
LAMB: Book. In other words, what part of it did you learn that you had the
most fun learning?
Dr. GORDON: Well, I think probably it's the way in which the different
fields--the field of law, the field of economics and the field of social
history--began to show similar patterns and I realized that they were
responding to the same social phenomenon of a mass--mass society, a public
society, rather than a society of private people on private estates and so
forth, and the way it--that was exciting to me, to be able to document the
same change in so many fields.
LAMB: Why was the railroad started in the first place?
Dr. GORDON: To open the West primarily. They, of course, experimented with
canals, such as the Erie Canal and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and
canals all across the state of Ohio, which is a phenomenon that I can't
imagine. I don't know how they dug a canal that long. But in any event,
it was thought that the railroads would--by the canal people that the
railroads would supersede them and indeed they did when it was shown that the
railroads were less expensive to maintain.
That's hard to believe, actually, when you think about it, because that's a
lot of maintenance. But apparently it's faster, cheaper--at least was thought
to be at the time--and eventually, of course, the canal owners got very, very
angry because the railroad--for example, the small railroads which made up the
New York Central were built parallel to the Erie Canal. And if that's not a
slap in the face, I don't know what is. But that was that. It was to be able
to send manufactured goods to the frontier so people could settle the frontier
and to bring back natural resources such as wood and leather and flour--most
particularly flour--from the West to serve urban areas in the East.
LAMB: Where was the first railroad?
Dr. GORDON: Well, that's very difficult to say because there were
simultaneous developments in upstate New York near Albany and Schenectady,
South Carolina, Charleston, and in Baltimore and Ohio, all pretty
much, in a three-year period, put down track, put trains on the track, and
finally concluded that a locomotive would be the best way of pulling a train
and then concluded that passengers could ride on this. So it's a series of
wrong and right guesses before coming to the most effective system with,
`Should we use a horse to pull this? Should it just be for freight or
sh--could it be for passengers or'--and so forth, various decisions like that,
until they all converged on a common pattern of development.
LAMB: In the history of the railroads, who made the most money? Or name
a couple people that made lots of money off the railroads.
Dr. GORDON: Well, of course, the famous names are Vanderbilt
family, though you see there are a number of people involved in that family,
and Gould--Jay Gould. But in the end, it would have--I'd have to say Morgan.
I'd have to say J.P. Morgan. But the thing is, Morgan really wasn't
interested in railroads, as far as I know. He was interested in money. And
the way he came to control so much money and so many railroads was through
buying out bankrupt railroads until by--till by the mid-1890s he
controlled--oh, gosh, I can't remember the exact percentage, but maybe two- to
three-fifths of the railroad mileage and the track mileage in the country he
controlled. But he control--what does control mean? I--you know, financially
he controlled them. Obviously he didn't control their operations. But that
was a phenomenal coup for him to do that.
LAMB: Did you travel to any of those spots like the Vanderbilt Mans--Mansion
up in New York and places like that to...
Dr. GORDON: I have not been to--and--many of the estates on the Hudson.
been to Newport, of course, and seen the houses there.
LAMB: Newport, Rhode Island?
Dr. GORDON: Yes, Newport, Rhode Island. And I grew up, to some extent, in
Philadelphia, where we knew a family that had been involved in railra--railway
speculation and become very wealthy that way. So I was familiar with some of
the patterns that could develop. And when I was in Chicago, of course, you
become familiar with the railroads because it's--the central reason for
Chicago's success is that it was a railroad depot and a contact point between
the Eastern states and the Western states.
LAMB: You had a statistic in the book--I'll find it here--that in 1907, that
was when we had the most railroads in this country, 1,564...
Dr. GORDON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and in 1930, we had the most miles of track, 429,883.
Dr. GORDON: Yeah.
LAMB: Now go back to that first number, the most railroads, 1,564 railroads.
Do you have any idea how many we have today?
Dr. GORDON: Well, the railroad in this country today are classified by length
and by wealth, so the ones that are class one railroads, which are really
the major interstate systems--I think there are about 10 class one systems and
that is still shrinking, of course. There was just recently a merger in the
West where two of the biggest systems merged--I think it was the Southern
Pacific and the Union Pacific--and so you have those two are now one. And
then there's the--of course, the Illinois Central system is still independent.
Of course, these financial situations change so rapidly, I cannot always be
absolutely certain. And I think a while back the Southern and the Chesapeake
and Ohio merged. And the Southern--it's now the dominant. And if I'm not
mistaken, the Southern now wants to get into New England and take over
LAMB: But in effect, you're saying it went from 1,564 down to 10?
Dr. GORDON: Well, no, because there are also small regional commuter lines
here and there, and there's a growing group of short lines. Now what happens
with that is when the big systems shrink up, you know, to improve their
profitability, they'll abandon certain lines of track. The state in which the
track is will sometimes put up for auction or f--at bid service on a
particular line of track because there are people who are depending on that.
These short lines buy track rights from the state and then they provide the
service, but that's mostly freight. That's not --excuse me--a
passenger service primarily.
LAMB: How about 429,000 miles of track at its peak in 1930? Do you have any
idea how many miles are used now?
Dr. GORDON: No, I couldn't answer that question.
LAMB: But it's lower?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, much, yes. Yes, much lower. We we were as everybody
admitted at the time, people in the railroad world, that the track was so
overbuilt, you know, you just didn't need a tremendous amount of the track
that had been laid before 1930.
LAMB: What was the difference between the Northern railroads and the
railroads before the Civil War?
Dr. GORDON: There are a lot of differences, and that's one of the critical
points in the book which lays the basis for the problem of Union. The
Southern railroa--the Southern states, I should say, did not want a railroad
that crossed state lines. The problem of having a railroad which was only
partially under control of the government of a state, and then would partially
be under the charter in a different state, you see--when you--even if you have
an charter in another state, it's not a--you can't keep that railroad
under your control.
So this--Southerners tried to keep the railroads within the bounds of states,
and when you came to a state line, you got off one railroad, you walked across
the boundary, the state boundary, and got on another railroad. And this was
all in the name of states' rights. And when it came to the Civil War, they
had no effective way of unifying their effort because of this arrangement.
And the North, of course, had these through lines which were much more
powerful than anything in the South in terms of their finances and their
influence. And this was an incalculable advantage for raising an army and
also for supplying an army in the field.
LAMB: Wh--when the Civil War started, what happened to the railroads and
at--what role did they play in the war itself?
Dr. GORDON: Well, it--it's complex, but the first thing that happened is--in
the North is that Lincoln said he retained the right to have first use of
them. He didn't take them under federal control, but he retained the right to
have first use to bring troops to Washington because they were very afraid
that Washington would be attacked. So they massed all the troops there--a
very practical matter. They had hundreds of thousands of people camped out
around Washington, DC, in tents, all in kinds of different uniforms and
different state flags and so forth.
And the South was unable to do this. It was unable to do this for two
reasons. One, the railroad system wasn't effective enough to do that quickly.
This was done within two or three days after Ft. Sumter--the South was not
able to do that. Furthermore, the Southerners didn't want to go to one
central place. They all wanted to defend their own state, so that created a
tremendous problem for Lee, who was trying to be the general not only the army
of Virginia but for the South--people didn't want to serve under him. So
eventually, he wa--the army of Virginia became sort of the basic army of the
South, but it did not happen quickly.
In the course of the war, of course, both railroads got tremendously worn, but
the Southern railroads were all but destroyed and it was not all just because
Union armies tore up the tracks. It's also because they had no maintenance,
no new parts, no new engines, no new cars for the length of the war. So this
was a terrible problem that they couldn't renew their system and they couldn't
develop it either. They couldn't get agreement to build during the war years,
so it was a serious difference.
In the North the railroad people became quite wealthy. A lot of people became
wealthy in--from contracts with the government and, in fact, the
Northerners--the Northern railroads were reimbursed substantially for miles
used by the Army. Do you see what I'm saying? South didn't have the money to
reimburse very much at all. They couldn't give the railroaders--the owners of
the railroads very much at all.
LAMB: In the early days of the railroad--and a--again you say it started in
Dr. GORDON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...how much--what kind of role did the federal government have in
creating the nationwide system?
Dr. GORDON: You mean before the Civil War?
Dr. GORDON: Not very much. This was partly because--if you're familiar with
that period of history, you know that there was a big difference of opinion
over what were called internal improvements, internal improvements being the
roads, canals, bridges and so forth that would connect the country together
and give it unity in a physical sense. And many people said the federal
government can't fund internal improvements because they're local in nature
and they serve the local business people. To have a road within the state of
Tennessee, that doesn't serve the whole country, that just serves Tennessee.
Do you see what I'm saying?
So the funding for internal improvements was largely passed back to the
states because it was felt to be unconstitutional to do it any other way. So
then states fell into this intense competition to be first with internal
improvements--a race to the resources and the markets that were beyond their
own borders. And--oh, gosh, there was no end to the role of the state
and the cities and the city fathers. Everybody wanted to--there was a rage to
raise money, to sell stocks and bonds and what were called subscriptions in
those days to raise funds to build a railroad. So the origins were very
local, very much local level.
LAMB: Were they all private in the beginning?
Dr. GORDON: No, they were not all private in the beginning. The
Pennsylvania and Michigan particularly built their railroads through a
state commission and they controlled--the railroads were controlled through a
state commission. Now most states had a railroad commission, but these
--in these states they controlled the railroads. The difficulty is, though,
that they couldn't make a profit.
Now my brother-in-law called me up the other night and asked me why
state-controlled railroads couldn't make a profit when private enterprise was
able to, and I, not being an economist, was not able to answer the question,
but I mentioned to him a couple of things. One of these was that they had to
pay a tremendous amount out in damages for people's property--sparks setting
fire to trees and barns and buildings along the route, people getting hurt,
their animals straying onto the tracks and getting hurt, things of this
nature. The state Legislature had to keep approving more and more money in
Now why--you may ask: If the states went bankrupt through damages, why
the private enterprise people go bankrupt through damages? So I started to
reflect on that and I don't think the answer's entirely clear because some
legal historians say that the railroads severely--excuse me--that the courts
severely limited the amount that railroads had to pay for damages--Do you see
what I'm saying?--and that there was kind of an unspoken agreement that,
because railroads were in the public interest, they should not be harassed too
much for damages.
But I'm not sure I entirely agree with that point of view because if you go
through the state Supreme Court records for each state, there are dozens and
dozens and dozens of damage cases, and I'd be hard-pressed to decide on the
basis of those that damages were limited. And I--it would take me a long time
to figure out if they were more limited for private ownership than they had
been under state ownership.
So then the question is still there: Why did the railroads not make a
profit under state ownership? So we thought perhaps there had been pressure,
that private interests might have put pressure on them, but we really don't
have any answers. I don't have any answers on that right now and I see no
consensus in what other historians have said either, so I'm not sure.
LAMB: Which book is this for you?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, well, that's an interesting question. It depends on what you
define as a book. Thi--in a way, this is my third book, but it's the first
one to be commercially published and distributed. I have written two
histories of hospitals, centennial histories. During the '70s and '80s, it
was the high-water mark of centennials for many institutions that were founded
in the 1870s and 1880s. And I wrote one, edited it and put in all the
pictures and ta-da-dee-da-dee-da that came out in 1981, and it was the history
of Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. And I think since then Humana has
bought Michael Reese, and then there was a question as to whether Michael
Reese was going to survive at all. So I'm not sure what the outcome of that
But then this small hospital out in the western suburbs of Chicago
called--it's called St. Elizabeth's--asked me to write one for them because
they liked the other one. And, well, theirs was much smaller. Obviously they
weren't in the same league. But those two books certainly gave me a lot of
experience on what constitutes a book and how to balance a story, things of
LAMB: Where did you go to college?
Dr. GORDON: I went to Smith College.
LAMB: Northampton, Mass?
Dr. GORDON: Yes, in Northampton, yes.
LAMB: Where'd you get your other degrees?
Dr. GORDON: Well, I got my MA and my PhD at the University of Chicago,
I finished in 1981.
LAMB: What were you studying at Chicago?
Dr. GORDON: American history.
LAMB: What was your specialty?
Dr. GORDON: This.
LAMB: So this is part thesis?
Dr. GORDON: Yes, this is based on my dissertation, right. I also spent a
year at Cambridge University in England working on social structure, the
way--ways of studying social structure. Of course, I was studying England and
France primarily, but it proved to be quite useful in--in this context after
all because I --became aware that the movement, the migration of
populations had a lot of bearing on the history of the railroads.
LAMB: What's the name of the high school you teach in right now?
Dr. GORDON: Well, it's called Tikvah High School. I believe, in Hebrew,
`tikvah' means hope. It's an Orthodox Jewish school run by some families.
They have very high standards. And they have a girls' upper school, a boys'
upper school and then they have a coeducational lower school. So it goes all
the way from day care through graduation, but it's very much separated and
organized--different parts of the building.
LAMB: What do you think of your students?
Dr. GORDON: Well, I like them very much. They're certainly inventive in
finding ways to survive being in high school and in being in modern society.
I find them very witty, and they also--most of them work incredibly hard.
You know, they resist all the time. They say, `Oh, no, we don't want to do
this,' or they say, `Oh, no, we didn't plan to do this today, Dr. Gordon. You
remember this the wrong way.' But in the end, they really work incredibly
LAMB: Why do you teach?
Dr. GORDON: Well, of course, I went to graduate school and I had it in mind
that I would like to teach. But something else I became quite aware of when I
was working in--I worked as a writer for many years at Michael Reese and at
another hospital, and it became quite evident to me that you could run an
institution essentially and entirely the wrong way for lack of basic
historical information. In other words, if you just had a great
administration or accounting or something, you could be completely off. You
could-- be like Brigadoon, you know, that you're off in a different
And this really disturbed me, and it disturbed me how little history people
knew on a day-to-day basis. It--and it also disturbed me that people seem to
be getting more and more focused on the kinds of things we're familiar with in
the headlines, like people's private problems and, you know, status
problems and various things that were not central--not central to anybody's
work. So I decided I would go back and try to teach rather than continuing to
be a writer for an institution.
LAMB: Back to the book, are there towns in America, cities in America that
wouldn't be there without the railroad?
Dr. GORDON: Yeah, there are.
LAMB: Can you name some of them?
Dr. GORDON: Well, Cheyenne, Wyoming, comes to mind. That was very much
started as a railroad town by the people who built the Union Pacific. They
would carry the wood and the doors and the--everything along on the train and
set up a new town to live in while they were working laying track. And those
towns--those railroad towns were very, very rough and a lot of them never
became anything more than just very, very small depots for people passing
through, you know, an unpopulated area. But Cheyenne has survived and some
the other places have survived, too--oh, gosh, a series of towns across
Nebraska, but I can't name them individually.
LAMB: Well, let me ask you in a different way. Are there towns that wouldn't
be nearly as large as they are today or cities, if it wasn't for the railroad?
Dr. GORDON: Well, yes, Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia.
definitely, in one way or another, makes the difference for those places.
That's--those are places where the wealth tended to come to rest and show
themselves in the scale of business.
LAMB: How much did the politicians have to say about which way the railroads
went, who owned them, how much money people made?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, well, this is something that was fought out at every level,
from the smallest town all the way to the federal government, because every
town would give its eyeteeth, I think is the phrase, to have a stop in their
town because they believed that the railroad had the potential to make them as
rich as New Yorkers or Chicagoans or Bostonians. They saw this unlimited
future of wealth if the railroad would just come to town.
But when you begin to ask the question, `Which towns is a railroad going to
stop in?' the answer is whoever makes the best arrangements with the railroad,
whoever--whichever politician can get to the railroad and say, `Look, we'll
give you a depot free of charge,' or, `We'll give you land down the middle of
Main Street free of charge if you'll just bring the railroad to our town.' So
this is an intensely political battle always at every level.
Now one of the best accounts of that that I know of is Carl Condit, who was a
transportation expert at--used to be at Northwestern--I don't know if he still
is. But he wrote a wonderful book called "The Railroad & the City" about
Cincinnati's political struggles for where to put the stations, whether two
railroads would be connected or not. So there isn't a decision that I know of
in the history of laying track that did not have political implications, no
LAMB: I underline a quote at the head of the--Chapter 21, and this was
from Leonard Mosely of a book, I guess, called "Dulles in 1978."
Dr. GORDON: Oh, yes.
LAMB: And I want to read it...
Dr. GORDON: OK.
LAMB: ...and ask you about it. It says, "After leaving the State Department,
John W. Foster"--now is that the same relation with John Foster Dulles? Is
that the same...
Dr. GORDON: It's his father.
LAMB: It's his father.
Dr. GORDON: Yes.
LAMB: "John W. Foster joined the boards of several rich and powerful Wall
Street corporations." This was the secretary of state joining...
Dr. GORDON: Wait a minute. How could it be his father? Let me work on that.
LAMB: OK. But it's relationship. OK.
Dr. GORDON: But it's--it's--it's the previous generation, yes.
LAMB: Let me read it again. "After leaving the State Department, John W.
Foster joined the boards of several rich and powerful Wall Street
corporations. He had built himself a lodge and several simple guest cottages
at Henderson, New York, on Lake Ontario. And important guests--senators, big
banking magnates, statesmen like William Howard Taft, John W. Davis, Andrew
Carnegie and Bernard Baruch--came to stay with him for the fishing."
Dr. GORDON: Yeah.
LAMB: I just--I wondered if that has anything to do with what--the kinds of
things we hear today about politicians going from being a politician to a Wall
Street job or a lobbying job, and then all the charges that are going on in
this campaign finance discussion about favors being put onto members of
Dr. GORDON: Well, lobbying has a rich history. It's certainly not a modern
invention. And the period of time between the Civil War and World War I was
the high-water mark of business control of government. And that's why--that's
what regulations--what government regulation was supposed to curb, with
business just having its way with the government, that the people needed to
reassert some control through the vote and through regulation over business,
that it should not be the other way around. And certainly, that's one of many
examples, was to have people to vacation together, no doubt--no doubt--what
would call today the jet set or was maybe 20 years ago called the jet set.
LAMB: There are a lot of names that pop in your book like George
Dr. GORDON: Yes.
LAMB: Is that the same Westinghouse Electric Company?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, yes, definitely. Yes.
LAMB: What role did he play back in the railroads?
Dr. GORDON: Well, he developed the air brake. See, the first railroads
didn't really have any kind of automatic brakes and the locomotive didn't have
any brake at all. So when you wanted to stop the train, you--there was a
brakeman on top of each car or each couple of cars, and he had to
walk--go onto the car and turn a wheel which applied the brakes, and then the
next few--he had to go to each car and turn this wheel that stopped the brakes
on that car. So the issue then was this is terribly dangerous not only for
the train but for the people standing--who had to stand on top of the train
throughout the journey. Those brakes continued to be in use even into the
20th century, although through trains and passenger trains had to have
Westinghouse's type of air brakes after about 1892.
LAMB: You say that--that presidential candidates were originally chosen by
Congress, and then about 1840, because of the railroads, they were chosen in
Dr. GORDON: Yes. Well, I also, I qualified that by saying it's actually
slightly earlier. It is a couple of years before the railroads made it
possible, because Jackson was in--was considered the first mass--person
elected by universal manhood white manhood suffrage.
Dr. GORDON: '8.
LAMB: '28? Yeah, yeah.
Dr. GORDON: '28, yeah, and then 1832. So they had sort of conventions at
that time, but the railroad made it possible to have a truly national
convention, and delegates could come from--it made a system to do it that way.
LAMB: So the railroads changed our politics?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, without any doubt, yes.
LAMB: The names Nathan Hale...
Dr. GORDON: Yes.
LAMB: ...Everett--Edward Everett Hale and Nancy Hale.
Dr. GORDON: That's all one family, the Hales. It's the same Hale as our
famous spy that was hung by the British during the Revolution, his
descendants. Nathan was the president of the Boston-Worcester Railroad. He
was the first one to promote railroads for Boston. His son, Everett--Edward
Everett Hale, wrote a very famous memoir in which he describes his father's
work and his own experiences on the railroads through the span of the 19th
century. Then his granddaughter, I believe, Nancy Hale, wrote a memoir in the
style of Edward Everett Hale's. It's nowhere near as comprehensive as his.
But those people carried the story through 1829 to 1929.
LAMB: There's a whole lot of little things you learn about traveling in
a--passenger cars and what changed over the years. For instance, they used to
not allow Sunday travel?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, yeah. Well, this is one of the issues of conflict. There
are a number of issues where local customs come into conflict with the
interests of the railroads, and the question of Sunday travel was definitely
one of those. People would--reverends would stand on the track if a train was
to come through town on a Sunday. But in the '60s--in the late 1850s and
during the '60s and later, of course, the law wasn't changed by fiat; it
wasn't--the federal government didn't say, `Now we will all take the train on
Sunday.' There was a confrontation at the local level everywhere to some
And the railroads finally won out by saying, `We have these things called
church trains and it helps the poor get to church to have the trains run on
Sunday,' so you couldn't argue with that, you know. We don't want to
keep--have the poor not be able to go to church on Sunday. So they showed the
railroad running on Sunday really wasn't irreligious at all. It was in the
service of Christianity, you know, so in that sense, they won. But there's
still restrictions on Sunday travel. We know that if we travel on Sunday, we
better consult the schedule because there aren't as many trains and the people
don't work as long hours and things of that nature.
LAMB: What'd they do about smoking?
Dr. GORDON: Oh, smoking was a very mixed issue. It was considered
irritating, it made the air smell bad, made it difficult to get a breath of
fresh air. But the thing is that smoking has many supporters, so they
figured--they said, `Many great and good men still smoke, you know. They--no
matter how wonderful some person might be, he still might have this nasty
habit.' So there's no point in legislating against it. You know, it's--they
had a tone of resignation in the press about this. Certainly they didn't
campaign against it vociferously the way they do today. So it was a matter of
individual taste. Ladies could--in the more developed areas, there'd be a
ladies' train car, where you--no one could smoke, so the air would be clear
there. But the day coach was the culprit, because the day coach was where
people of all different standards found themselves together.
But I thought the funniest thing I found was this lady from the frontier--you
know, she was smoking a corncob pipe on a steamboat in the ladies' room, in
the ladies' parlor, and she didn't see anything wrong with it. That was her
habit. That's the way she lived, was to have a corncob pipe in her mouth.
But the more genteel types made her leave because, `You're not supposed to be
smoking a pipe in the ladies' room. What's your problem? You don't get it,'
you know. They were trying to upgrade the standards of this woman's life.
LAMB: What'd they do about heating railroad cars in the middle of winter?
Dr. GORDON: Mainly, they used a thing which would be best described as, like,
a Franklin stove. It was an iron--cast-iron stove with a pipe that sent the
smoke out the ceiling, and it was the bar--job of one of the trainmen or the
conductor to keep either coal or wood in an area next to the stove and adjust
the fire and keep it going, but, of course, there were two problems with this.
One was that it's not--well, it's not safe, obviously, and the other is that
it's not very evenly distributed heat. It glows in the center, and you--it's
like having a fire at home. Either you're there by the fire and your face is
turning red, or you're five feet or 10 feet away from it and you're not warm
So it wasn't until the 18--late 1880s that they start experimenting with
things that were like hot water pipes--steam--steam heat, because in the 1880s
there were a tremendous number of fires from these stoves. When two trains
hit, that was bad enough. It was made infinitely worse by the stove tipping
over, and the trains, being made of wood, caught fire and many more people
LAMB: What were emigrant cars?
Dr. GORDON: Well, emigrant cars were just sort of the bottom line. They
could be more than one thing. They could have been built specifically for
emigrants--people coming into the country from Europe, usually, or Russia--and
having being encouraged to do so by the railroad companies, because they
wanted people to settle along the tracks and help them make a profit and to
help build the railroads, etc. So they would come into the country and they
would go West on an emigrant car, which could be, at its plainest, a big car
--devoid of any--What's the word?--decoration or padding or anything,
just wooden planks to sleep on or to sit on, and you brought your own
arrangements for food and the rest of it. There were no services at all. And
the emigrant cars go very, very slowly and give all other trains priority. So
they'd get off the main track if there's a, you know, Pullman car
coming--Pullman train coming through. So they-- not only go slowly, they
stop frequently. And then, of course, they cost less. They--you pay bottom
rates for this service, but the idea is to get to the West. Some--on some
train lines they would use their old cars. If their cars were wearing out,
instead of maintaining them, they would use them for emigrants. So it was the
steerage class of train travel.
LAMB: What about the Pullman palace cars? What were they?
Dr. GORDON: Well, they were the first-class deluxe of train travel. They
were very elaborate. They usually had places for eating or sleeping or both
in them as well as--but these things were built on a scale that we just are
not familiar with today because they--you know, you could have as--things such
as silver faucets or in--ornately carved wood or beveled mirrors set into
wooden paneled walls or palm trees next to the doorway or very heavy drapes
with fringe and deep plush drapes or carpeting or Oriental rugs or even an
organ. So somebody could play the organ and the others could sit around and
sing in the evenings, you know. They--that was back in the days when singing
was still an--an evening's entertainment. And some of these palace cars were
sold to--into private hands, like maybe Vanderbilt or Gould or Andrew
Carnegie. Many of these people had private cars that were, in fact, palace
Pullmans. Pullman made them special order for these people.
LAMB: Who was George Pullman?
Dr. GORDON: Well, Pullman was a man who first perfected the sleeping car and
the sleeping car was perfected because of the need to go long distances,
especially in the West. The West has many more miles without stops. So he
did this during the Civil War. He was a Chicagoan and he made a--certainly
made a fortune selling Pullman sleepers, Pullman dining cars, Pullman saloon
cars, Pullman parlor cars, etc., for first-class travel. And then later on he
became associated with the town of Pullman, where he tried to build what was
his idea of an ideal community for his workers who made these cars. But in
truth, they felt much too obligated to the company living in these towns and
eventually the idea of a company town lost its credibility.
LAMB: Is that what Pull--is it Pullman, Washington, is named after?
Dr. GORDON: I'm not sure about Pullman, Washington, but Pullman, Illinois, is
just south of Chicago.
LAMB: The name Pullman has come up many times in this particular program.
Robert Todd Lincoln used to run it. Eugene Debs went to jail over it.
I've mentioned both of those to go back to Abraham Lincoln. What
impact--and we also have heard that because they used the Pullman car to take
Abraham Lincoln to Springfield after he was shot--that--that he put it on the
map--put the company on the map. What--what do you know about all that?
why did it suddenly end up...
Dr. GORDON: Well, I'm not convinced of that because my--if my
memory serves me, it was the same car he took to Washington in 1861 that he
took back when he--after his death-that took him back, I should say.
But he was--certainly made popular the idea of having your own car and
--attaching it to trains to take you from place to place in style. But
Lincoln himself was not a stylish man and had no pretensions to the kind of
glamor that Pullman made famous.
Lincoln was not in that tradition and he felt the ma--I--as I understand from
reading Carl Sandburg's history of Lincoln's life, Lincoln mainly used the car
because he saw it as a way of promoting union and trying to avoid the war. He
started out from Illinois long before the March 4th inauguration and he went
from town to town attaching his car to different trains, small town after
small town, and then up into upstate New York, then down into Manhattan, then
further south, talking to people, telling them to try to calm their fears
about the possibility of war. Coming back, certainly, the sentimental
associations were still --we still live with them, there's no doubt. It
could be that Pullman benefited from that, but I'm not convinced that the
ideas of gaudiness and elaborate decor have much to do with Lincoln. He was a
very plain person in his habit.
LAMB: Of all the things you do, how--on a scale of, you know, something
that's difficult, where would you put this--writing this book?
Dr. GORDON: Well, that's an interesting question. Let me think. Certainly,
you learn something about staying on a consistent--you have to have a level of
consistency to your thinking and your habits, which is almost inconceivable.
You cannot let anything knock you off or change your mind. No matter what
emergency may come up in the family or in the world, you're there; you cannot
afford to let your mind wander.
LAMB: You-- told us in the beginning that your brother David was the--he
knows all these schedules--train schedules. I never asked you, though, why.
What-- got him interested? Is he still in touch with you on all
Dr. GORDON: Yes, we're in touch about it, not to any great extent, but--well,
Dave was a bit of a child savant or prodigy in the sense that he
memorized a tremendous number of things when he was still very young. When
was two, he was paging through the World Book and, you know, telling us what
was in the World Book. And when I was about five, my mother made me a lion
birthday cake--you know, you cut the pieces up and you make a lion, you put
coconut on for the mane. And David walked into the room and said, `Oh, edible
Rex,' and we realized at this point that David's mind was a little bit beyond
the norm, and he still is a very, very learned person not just in railroads
but in many areas.
LAMB: What's he do now?
Dr. GORDON: Well, he's a cartographer and he worked for a while at the United Nations making maps of Bosnia and Serbia because there were so many changes in the boundaries in that part of the world that they needed extra help to make the maps--to remake and remake the maps. So that was fascinating. And now I think he's working on an atlas.
LAMB: Who--we haven't got time for all of them, but who are these--all these people you dedicate this book to?
Dr. GORDON: Well, the two people at the top are my parents and then the four--next four people are my--three people, excuse me--are my siblings, and the following four people are my nieces and nephews. Daniel, Julie and Megan are my nephew and my two--they're twins. Julie and Megan are twins. Joseph was their brother, and he had cerebral palsy that was very severe, and he died about two years ago.
LAMB: Now is there another book on this subject that you cooked up in the middle of all this?
Dr. GORDON: Well, of course, you know, after you've worked on something this long, it becomes a kind of a habit, and I started to wonder what I was going to do next and have a number of ideas. And then something happened, which was that people started sending me letters and telling me stories about their father or their grandfather or their relatives who had had experiences with the railways. And at first, I just--`Oh, this is interesting,' you know. Here's a man whose father worked on the Southern railroads after the Civil War--a very elderly man. Here's a man--worked on the railroads in Italy when Mussolini was making the trains run on time. Another man just wrote me that he--his wife took the last horse car in Manhattan before they switched over to the other more modern systems of transportation. And then a woman came up to me the other day and said that her relatives had helped build the railroads in Indiana. So I was starting to see the potential of these stories to be collected in some way before these people get too old to tell their
LAMB: My grandfather worked on the Monon Railroad, so after we shut this
Dr. GORDON: Oh.
LAMB: ...I'll ask you more about that.
Dr. GORDON: Oh, yes. I'd be happy to talk about it.
LAMB: Here's the book. It's called "Passage to Union." Our guest has been the author Sarah H. Gordon. Thank you very much.
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