In this provocative book White debunks the myth of the cross-country railroads as well-managed, financially successful ventures that united a nation and "civilized" the West. Rather, he concludes these were huge, poorly-run boondoggles, heavily subsidized by the federal government (in loans, grants and military protection) and prone to repeated financial failure. Further, they were built decades before the market for shipping and passenger transport was large enough to justify the great investment, and so did little to benefit the country in the short term. In fact White argues the railroads disrupted the rational, humane and ecologically-sound settlement of the West.
In this interview, White, a professor of history at Stanford, draws parallels between the "gilded age" greed and corruption that undergird the development of the transcontinentals with the dysfunctional financial and political conditions that gave rise to our current economic recession.
Founded in 1903, the Commonwealth Club is the oldest and largest public affairs forum in the country. Clubs events are broadcast as a weekly radio series and are available on demand via Internet podcast. Two past programs also touch on California history:
* Scandal, Intrigue and Drama in California History, Oct. 9, 2009. Four authors discuss the risk-taking, entrepreneurism and class conflict that define the state's past.
* Kevin Starr: California's Golden Dreams, Sept. 24, 2009. The state's preeminent historian considers the political, social and cultural forces that transformed California in the 1950s.
PHOTO CREDIT: May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Photograph by Alfred A. Hart.