I use the European term “railways” rather than the US-centric “railroads,” as my major focus in this area has been European railways, especially Swiss. But I have also read a lot about US railroads as well, so will cover them here. And my interests are in both real railways, and model railways. We had an ambitious model of Swiss railways under construction when we lived in Ann Arbor. We disassembled it for the move to UC Irvine. It’s been in storage since we arrived here, largely because our focus has been on renovating the house. While we were about to begin the model’s reassembly, we decided to move to a retirement community. We would like to offer it for reassembly here, but so far the management has been hesitant. I’ll work on that later. But for now I’ll focus on what I’ve been reading on this topic.
Maury Klein. (1987) Union Pacific: The Birth of a Railroad 1862-1893. New York: Doubleday.
———. (1989) Union Pacific: The Rebirth 1894-1969. New York:Doubleday.
———. (2011) Union Pacific: The Reconfiguration. America’s Greatest Railroad from 1969 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.
Why, you might ask, does a Swiss railways aficionado read a three volume history of the Union Pacific? Well, it turns out my interests are broader than just Switzerland, or Europe. Then, the next question might be, why the Union Pacific? I have had a fixation on this railroad for quite some time. I am a long-time member of the Union Pacific Historical Society, have spent many hours watching Union Pacific action, especially in Nebraska, where its 3-track mainline is a carnival of activity, and it’s massive Bailey Yard in North Platte is a wonder. I’m not sure I can explain this fascination, but it has certainly been rewarded by reading Maury Klein’s majestic 3-volume history. I had read the first two volumes close to when they were published, and wondered for some time if he would pick up the story. And, 22 years later, he did, in the somewhat slimmer but no less fascinating third volume (Volume 1: 659 pages; Volume 2: 551 pages; Volume 3: 429 pages). Railroads in the US (and, in somewhat similar ways, elsewhere), have had a complex history. Starting in the mid 19th century, and certainly up until the 1930s, they were the dominant form of transport for both goods and people. But in the 20th century, the challenges from automobiles, trucks, and airplanes have radically changed their role, resulting in massive changes in their mission and structure. Bankruptcies, line abandonments, mergers, and reorganizations have changed the cast of characters. The Union Pacific is one of only five remaining Class 1 railroads in the US (the others are Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Norfolk Southern, CSX, and Kansas City Southern). What makes the Union Pacific’s history especially interesting is that it was one of the two players in establishing the first transcontinental railroad. It started at the Missouri River, and worked its way westward, while the Central Pacific started in California, and headed east, through the mountains. They met in Utah in 1869. The Union Pacific faced scandals, bankruptcies, and management turmoil throughout the 19th century, and nearly disappeared toward the end of that period. But two of the most dynamic and interesting railroad chiefs, Jay Gould and E.H. Harriman, guided the railroad to prosperity and dominance. Because of the terrain it operated in, it experimented with many forms of propulsion for its trains. Its “Big Boy” steam engines were among the biggest ever made. In the 1930s it introduced diesel streamliners. In the 1950s and 60s it tried out massive gas turbines, and fascinating double diesels (the so-called Centennials, introduced in 1969). By the time of Klein’s third volume, the Union Pacific stretched from Chicago to the Pacific Coast, and through the acquisition of the Southern Pacific, went eastward from California to Texas and New Orleans. The stresses and strains of operating such a huge network has made for interesting history. And the post 1969 period covered in Vol. 3 is full of them. The contemporary mix of freight, such as coal, grain, and containers, has changed the nature of the railroad’s traffic, as has the complex system that resulted from all the acquisitions and mergers in the late 20th century. Klein’s three-volume opus is well worth the read for the details of this made-in-America history.