Sarah Gordon
Sarah Gordon
Passage to Union:  How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929
ISBN: 1566631386
Passage to Union
Sarah Gordon was interviewed about her book, Passage to Union: How the Railroads Transformed American Life, 1829-1929, published by Ivan R. Dee. The book chronicles the history of the first 100 years of the American railroad system. Ms. Gordon detailed the effect train travel had on the rural economy and the lives of ordinary citizens. Ms. Gordon, a high school history teacher, discussed her lifelong love of railroads, which led to the writing of the book. She said that the burgeoning of the railroads, especially passenger travel, was symbolic of the change to a mass American culture from a more individualistic one.
Search Audible
Video Clip Search is not available for this video.
TRANSCRIPT
Passage to Union
Program Air Date: March 9, 1997

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 Avenue.
LAMB: You had quite a station there. Is that a union station in Philadelphia?
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 had 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 was 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 the--were 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, in 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. I've 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 Conrail.
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 Southern 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 1829...
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?
LAMB: Yeah.
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 damages. Now why--you may ask: If the states went bankrupt through damages, why didn't 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 was. 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 that nature.
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, where 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 hard, so...
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 dimension. 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 of 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. Technology 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 doubt.
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 Congress.
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 we 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 Westinghouse.
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 convention.
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.
LAMB: What?--1824?
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 extent. 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 enough. 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 were killed.
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? And 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 this?
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 he 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 stories.
LAMB: My grandfather worked on the Monon Railroad, so after we shut this down here...
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.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.