Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Richard White on High-Speed Rail and Transcontinental Railroads

Last weekend, Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, weighed in on the New York Times Op-Ed pages on the efficacy of government subsidies for high-speed rail. He writes,
In his State of the Union address, President Obama compared high-speed rail to the 19th-century transcontinental railroads as parallel examples of American innovation. I fear he may be right. For the country as a whole, the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 and subsequent legislation subsidizing the transcontinental railroads — the lines that crossed the continent from the 98th meridian to the Pacific Coast — were the worst laws money could buy. By encouraging dumb growth, those laws sacrificed public good for private gain. . . .
White, who may be most well known for his seminal book, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republic in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (2d ed., 2010), has recently been working on the history of the transcontinental railroads and their impact. His book, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, will be published by W. W. Norton in May.
      With the assistance of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, White has also launched an innovative spatial history lab at Stanford, using historical GIS and other technologies to discover new patterns within historical data. In a 2007 feature article in Stanford Magazine, White said, “We’re talking about something well beyond a fancy map . . . We’re giving people a view of the past they otherwise wouldn’t have. We’ll be able to answer questions we otherwise couldn’t answer.” The first fruits of these efforts can be found on the project website.