Sunday, July 18, 2010


I read this as part of our intensive week-long analysis of the Great Strike for Expeditionary Learning Institute. It's likely Dr. Stowell's PhD thesis bound up, because it reads like one.

But I'll not knock him. From what I understand, Stowell goes against the grain of a century of historical analysis/interpretation; it's been accepted as obvious that the reason most of the strikers involved in the 1877 crisis were not railroad workers was due to the fact of overwhelming sympathy for their plight amongst the general populations of the affected urban centers. Focusing in on upstate New York cities (Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany), Stowell attempts to prove that common citizens were agitated by the rail lines running through the streets, which were a public nuisance. Citizens who joined strikers in overwhelming numbers had their own grievous bones to pick with railroad companies, regardless of their beliefs re: capital v. labor. Street crossings were often unmarked or unguarded, train whistles blew all hours, trains blasted through city centers at unsafe speeds, cinders caused fires and property damage, soot was a health hazard and a nuisance, and when railroads were fined or required to improve safety they ignored citizens, retailers, and governments alike.

Stowell proves his point with redundancy galore: don't believe railroads through town were a public nuisance? He lists dozens of deaths, dozens of lawsuits, hundreds of complaints, newspaper articles and editorials, stories of horses frightened by locomotives who drug overturned carts through crowded streets, hundreds of limbs lost, children killed playing in the streets, drunks exiting saloons drug along by fast trains, etc. Yeah, it's repetitive, but he's trying to get academia to consider his idea.

I considered it enough to ask the director of the B&O Railroad Museum his thoughts about Stowell's thesis. He thought the idea was weak, and that of course the crowds of citizens were simply sympathetic to the strikers, because the rails did nothing but make their lives better. Perhaps Stowell's argument doesn't apply south of the Mason/Dixon line? Whatever. You would never read this unless you were a fanatic or professionally obligated anyhow.

1 comment:

Steven Hart said...

The resistance to railroads in residential areas is alive and well in the present day. In the Nineties there was an uproar in Montclair (NJ) when a freight line running through town was upgraded to passenger service. A bid to open a passenger line that would have linked New Brunswick directly to the Shore lines was scotched because a county bigwig was a native of one of the towns the line ran through.