12 March 2011

Railroad vs. U.S. Army Jobs, 1854

From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), p. 188:
Similarly elaborate was a great excursion celebrating the completion of the Rock Island in 1854. Two trains of twelve cars each left Chicago loaded with 1,300 people to the cheers of a vast crowd. They proceeded through the prairie and stopped for people to gather wildflowers and grasses and to observe the substantial stone houses and gardens already established along the line. The prairie, a traveler on that train said, "was in its way as grand as the White Mountains, or Niagara Falls." Arriving at Rock Island and the Mississippi to a cannonade, there was a banner at the depot reading- "The Mississippi and the Atlantic Shake Hands." Drawn up to the wharf were six of the largest Mississippi River steamboats—War Eagle, Galena, Lady Franklin, Sparhawk, Golden Era, and Jenny Lind. Each had a band playing on the upper deck.

The "Conquests of Civilization" looked especially impressive that day comparing favorably with any military conquests of old. Wrote a man celebrating the excursion opening the Rock Island: "Our invasions, instead of desolating and laying waste the regions into which they are carried, spread fertility and abundance on their track, and they bring us back, instead of weeping captives to minister to our ostentation and pride, the fruits and riches of the earth, garnered from the most distant climes and kingdoms." The Illinois Central Company was bigger than the U.S. Army. That army had 10,000 in 1854. The Illinois Central railroad employed 19,000 who earned a total in wages of nearly $4 million per year. In three years it would build 700 miles of railroad, whereas in thirty years the federal government had spent $200 million on the army "for which they have nothing to show but some old forts, guns, battered uniforms, and demoralized veterans." Soon enough, in 1856, trains passed over the Mississippi on the great Rock Island Bridge, 1,581 feet long with a draw in the center. "Yes, the Mississippi is practically no more. It is spanned by the mighty artery of commerce and enterprise—the railroad."

The uninhabited prairie might be sublime and a "solemn" sight, but seeing the plains of Illinois divided into farms was more exciting still The fields would "drop fatness" when in time "the old fogy sod, matted conservatism of centuries, is overturned by the revolutionists, the ploughshares, and penetrated by those radicals, the grain roots, and the wheat fields stretch out green and wavy as the seas."

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