The traditional story of American railroads offers a fairly uncritical narrative of progress and order. In this view, railroads traversed the North American continent by the 1870s, leaving economic growth, political organization, and agricultural bounty in its wake. Although there were some real benefits to the arrival of the railroad, the real story of this technology’s impact on American history also must include political corruption, environmental change, and economic disparities. The historical assessment of the railroad’s impact on the American West needs to examine both the positive and unsavory aspects of the adoption of this technological system.
Sean Adams (Ph.D. Wisconsin, 1999) is the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History and specializes in the history of American capitalism, as well as the history of energy. Dr. Adams’ most recent book argues that America’s fossil fuel addition traces back to the 19th century and is entitled Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the 19th Century (Johns Hopkins, 2014). He is also the author of Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America (2004), a three-volume anthology entitled The American Coal Industry, 1789-1902 (2013), the editor of A Companion to the Era of Andrew Jackson (2013) and The Early American Republic: A Documentary History (2009), and has written several articles and book chapters in his fields of research.