Sac History Happenings

News and developments in Sacramento and California history

June 27, 2011
Interview explores the myth of the transcontinental railroads

Gold Spike.JPGThe Commonwealth Club of California posted a video recording of a recent interview with historian Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

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.

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About Sac History Happenings

California and Sacramento have a long, rich, vibrant history. And our region is blessed with an abundance of historical resources maintained by museums, libraries, archives and societies. This blog aims to alert readers to the latest developments in local/state historical education and research.

Send tips concerning upcoming exhibits, tours, lectures and meetings, as well as new books, magazine articles and online collections to the blog's contributors.

The Contributors:

Michael Dolgushkin

Michael Dolgushkin is Manuscript Librarian at the California State Library History Section. He is co-author of San Francisco's California Street Cable Cars and is a frequent contributor to the California State Library Foundation Bulletin. Contact him at

Amanda Graham

Amanda Graham is a Certified Archivist working in the Sacramento Room of the Sacramento Public Library. She earned a BS in History from Southern Oregon University and a MS in Information Studies with an emphasis in archives from The University of Texas at Austin. Contact her at

Pete basofin

Pete Basofin is Director of Editorial Research at The Sacramento Bee. He previously worked at The St. Petersburg Times and Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune. Contact him at

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