Review of American Railroads by John Stover


American Railroads, published in 1961, is a reasonable starting point if one does not know much about how the American railroad system began, starting with the canal system that used the nation’s navigable rivers such as the Erie.

Stover’s history delves into why the railroad developed (because of winter days, low water levels, the slowness in travel, and the distance of farms and cities from the rivers) to the troubles that plague building the various railroads to the speed in which the railroad became the preeminent mode of travel. That is the first half. Then a series of events including WWI, WWII, the Populist Movement (and with it the Grangers), increased regulation and finally the car and plane came along to remove the railroad from its place of honor with the railroad as a whole buckling under the weight and strain of bankruptcies, loss of freight and passengers, abandonment of trackage, etc before rebounding that has continued to the present day.

For such a slim volume, Stover’s account is part non-fiction history (with a slight academic feel) and part almanac. It is replete with data (and some charts) on freight and passengers rates, amount of track, costs, wages, amount of freight, number of passengers, etc) and technical information on the various parts of a train system as developed from the early days of horse-pulled cars to running by steam to abandonment of coal and traveling by more powerful and faster electric locomotives.