“To try the speed": adventures in the development of Massachusetts railroads, 1826-1850
Viens, Katheryn P.
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Railroads entered American life during the second quarter of the nineteenth century through the efforts of rural residents who embraced this new technology. In an era of expanding economic opportunities, men and women throughout Massachusetts related what they learned about railroads to their previous experience with mechanization and transportation improvements and took the lead in developing rail projects. By 1850, more than 1,000 miles of track crisscrossed the state, carrying millions of riders annually. Popular support was not only essential to the railroads’ success; rural habits determined the railroads’ final form. In the past, business and economic historians have made railroads the basis of organizational and network studies and measured their support by the allocation of public funds. They have overlooked rural capitalism and early rail technology. This project eschews economic and scientific determinism in favor of a humanistic approach influenced by Jan de Vries’s theory of the “Industrious Revolution” and Joyce Appleby’s definition of capitalism as a cultural system that challenges traditional norms. It identifies several models of railroad development in Massachusetts that break down the traditional binary between “rural” and “urban.” It also refines the investment model of Arthur M. Johnson and Barry E. Supple, which distinguishes “opportunistic” from “developmental” projects. This study recovers the lived experience of rural residents at the intersection of technology and culture. Among its sources, it uses the U.S. Census of Manufactures to show widespread industrialization and a long history of remaking the landscape in the countryside. Rather than trace the flow of investment capital, it examines corporate charters and petitions to measure rural residents’ support for rail technology and their engagement with the political process. It examines knowledge and technology transfer to demonstrate that rural residents were as equipped as urban investors to evaluate new technology and gauge its potential applications. Because Massachusetts was a national leader in industry, politics, the law, reform, the arts, and culture in this period, this more accurate understanding of how railroads emerged helps to reshape our understanding of key topics in the early republic.