Destiny and the Western Railroad

Ray Stannard Baker

Century Magazine/April, 1908

WE of the unstirred East are accustomed to look upon the railroad as a mere feature of the landscape, a natural phenomenon to be enjoyed or suffered, as the case may be, a convenience subject to inconveniences. We may know the conductor of our favorite train and the station-agent, who also looks after our express packages; but the president of the road—who could be more distant and impersonal? For in the East the railroad is an incident; in the West, a destiny.

You will not remain long in this new land before you feel the intimate, personal, paternal presence of the railroad, advising, beguiling, influencing, offering you largess here, blocking your pet purposes there, until you acquire a new idea of the meaning and function of. the road. I shall not forget the surprised exclamation of a general agent when I innocently suggested that his road might be interested in Western development.

“Why,” he replied, “the West is purely a railroad enterprise. We started it in our publicity department.”

It was a remark that contains more than the usual grain of truth. The West was inevitable, but the railroad was the instrument of its fate.

In the East, the railroad was built to connect important towns; it was amiably subservient to an old civilization; it accepted the dictates of the alderman and the legislator, it came to town meekly, glad to find an unoccupied spot where it might plant its station, allowing small matters like streets to force it up in the air on bridges or bury it deep in tunnels; but in the West the road developed the full stature of independence. It pushed its way across states, counties, plains, mountains, consulting only the dictates of its own pleasure. Towns came because of the road, not the road because of the towns. Some official put an inky finger on the map. “There,” he said, “is a good place for a city. Call it Smith’s Coulee, after our master-mechanic.”

And the railroad, having thus a sort of automatic gift of prophecy, acquired all the land in the immediate neighborhood, reserved every possible privilege for itself, and offered corner lots to future inhabitants. First Smith’s Coulee was a tank-stop, then a place on the map, then a post-office, then a town, then perhaps a city, with electric lights and telephones. Except the mining-camps, which grew up where they willed in spite of the road, this is the history of nearly all the towns of the West, even some of the most important. More than one Pacific coast port destined to become a great city owes its existence to the fact that an engineer found this particular spot the easiest approach for his road.

American towns have been denied individuality. “You see one,” says the critic, “and you see all.” But these Western railroad towns are peculiar unto themselves. The Montana town is the Montana town, and very different indeed from the Ohio or the Michigan town. Smith’s Coulee lies close at the side of its parent, the railroad, as if fearing to venture out into the open plain—a single long, wide street, the grimy red station, freight-house, and water-tank on one side, and a row of square-front, unpainted wooden stores on the other, with saddled cayuses standing, check-rein down, in front of the Gem Saloon. There is a general store, which is also the post-office, a feed stable, an agricultural-implement emporium, a barber shop, and numerous saloons, all in a row. The dust swirls in at one end of the street and out at the other, and twice every day the limited express goes streaking through. As the town grows, they plant a brick schoolhouse—the school is always the best building in a Western town—on a fenced square of the desert, a little way out; then a bare wooden church with silent steeple rises on a corner—probably the first corner, geographical or moral, that the town ever had.

Presently a side street appears, and a residential part, though it is difficult enough even for the homes to get away from the railroad. Then the road builds a coal-bin beyond the water-tank, paints it red, and another street opens on the farther side of the tracks, with a feed and hardware store at the crossing. At the end of the fourth year, Smith’s Coulee has a Fourth-of-July celebration; the inhabitants declare it good, and it grows and waxes strong. At the end of ten years it has become the greatest in the world in something or other—in the number of horses it ships to market, or the amount of alfalfa it raises, or the height of the stand-pipe of its waterworks.

With coming self-consciousness it discovers a bitter rival in Jones City, fifty miles farther up the track, named after the fourth vice-president and celebrated as having the best base-ball team in the state. Earnest, strenuous, ambitious towns are these, full of ozone and energy. The ubiquitous commercial traveler who occupies the best chair in the smoking compartment will tell you that they are “lively towns,” “good business places,” and how much they sell of shoes and saddles and calico.

Smith’s Coulee and Jones City read many newspapers—read out of all proportion to their size—and go into politics as though politics really meant something. Two parties grow up, extra-political, but enthusiastic, one pro-railroad, the other anti-railroad. And still later, especially during hard times, they amalgamate and become fiercely anti-railroad (including all the inhabitants except the station-agent and the roundhouse foreman). Petitions are drawn up and resolutions are adopted looking to the reduction of freight rates. We of the East live in peaceful ignorance of freight rates, but if you talk any length of time with any Western business man, you will find him veering around sooner or later to freight rates. He will tell you that if the road would only make a through tariff (he speaks volubly of tariffs, differentials, yardage, and the like) of forty-eight cents instead of fifty-three—only five cents reduction, mind you— a new industry would blossom forthwith, cities would boom joyfully, settlers would rush in; but while the rate is fifty-three cents, anyone can see that ruin is the only outcome. Mass-meetings are held, letters are printed in the papers. Congress is petitioned, the influential citizen puts on his derby hat and goes to see the officials; but the patriarchal road, driving its red trains across a thousand miles of desert and over two mountain ranges, in the dust and heat of summer and the deep snows of winter, goes its superior way, and the rate remains at fifty-three. But the road has not forgotten its people, though they wax impatient. By and by, tomorrow, when that tunnel in Idaho is finished and the coal-mine in Wyoming is opened, after the people have entirely forgotten the heat of the freight controversy in the absorbing attempt to corral the road to make Smith’s a regular stop for its much belauded express (dining car, barber shop, library, and all that), the road calmly makes a rate of forty-nine, or perhaps forty-five or forty-two, and no one thinks anything more about it.

Built upon faith in a virgin country, with a restless, expansive, ambitious people, the road is ever solicitous for development, being wholly unable to look upon its plains and mountains except with the eye of the prophetic imagination. If you doubt, read the newest railroad pamphlet, and you will see the very desert smiling with crops, gold bursting from the hills, and deer and elk and bear to be seen from the car windows. Talk with the special agent, and lose your very soul in longing for a Montana farm or an Oregon orchard or a Colorado ranch. Ask any settler in some part of the West why he immigrated, and he will invariably point you back to the beguiling road, a pamphlet, a fevered folder, an enthusiastic agent. You will find that he has not only been solicited, but perhaps moved free of expense by the road; that he has settled on railroad land, and possibly he is now building with railroad timber and plowing with a railroad plow. And he has usually thrived, you will find, under the parental care of the road. He understands the bargain: he comes out and settles today, assisted by the road in his pioneer struggle; next year or the year after he will have grain or cattle to ship, and he will buy sugar and coffee, which has paid toll to the road, and he will travel back and forth in the passenger-cars and induce his friends to join him. Thus the road proves its faith, justifies its prophecies, planting acorns for oaks to grow.

So the road plays its part in all the wide activities of Western life. You will find it a vital power in politics, often sinister, often corrupting, always commanding. Here is an especially bright newspaper which supports with sober logic the pretensions of the road. Delve deep, and you will find the money of the road working in the editorial till. Here is a struggling church: the road has not only furnished the land for the new building, but its money has purchased the cabinet organ and the big Bible. This street carnival glitters more brightly because the road has been amiable; this water-power has been developed because the road took part of the stock; this library has more books because the first vice-president has been interested. And so, mingling good and evil, the road pursues its commanding purposes—the development of an empire.

The West has a curious way of recognizing the importance of the road by a species of personification. After you have been in Seattle or Tacoma or Everett or Portland or San Francisco for a time, you will acquire an absorbing interest in the doings of “Jim” Hill, Harriman, W. A. Clark—in short, what these men are planning for their roads. James J. Hill, indeed, has been one of the potent factors in all these public enterprises of the railroads. It was his theory, as well as that of Henry Villard and Collis P. Huntington, those other railroad geniuses, that the road must develop the country in order that the country might develop the road. So we find Villard interesting himself in drafting the constitutions of the new northwestern states, and Hill giving practical advice to the farmers for the improvement of their wheat crops. The East is merely curious concerning its millionaires and railroad presidents—they are a pleasant and highly flavored social diversion—but to the West a railroad magnate is a source of personal solicitude and anxiety, for he seems to stand at the very door of fate. You will hear endless discussion in Washington as to whether “Jim” Hill really means to favor Everett or Seattle as a terminal point, what “Jim” Hill intends to do for Fairhaven, when “Jim” Hill expects to have his new ships running to the Orient, and how in the world will he make them pay. In Spokane you will be questioned as to whether or not “Jim” Hill should make special terminal rates to that city, and before you have an opportunity to reply, you will be assured that he certainly should. Portland will tell you eagerly of Harriman’s plans. Los Angeles vibrates with interest in the new road from Salt Lake City, what Moffat will do, and what W. A. Clark purposes, and what bearing all this will have on the Santa Fe.

And yet, great as is the power and prominence of the road in the West, it is itself only the instrument by which a mighty nation is making progress. The road was the effort of the East to knit to itself with steel the far-outlying Rockies and the Pacific coast. Without the road, the West and the East, diverse in interest and sentiment, never could have been held together. With the interchange of ideas and commodities which it encourages, the American people have been able to build up a great empire, holding together vast territory, firmly founded upon national unity.