“ You Can’t Get Anywhere Without Coming to Ogden:
Railroading in the American West”
a commemorative panel discussion presented at the
2004 Utah Construction/ Utah International Symposium
Dr. Kathryn MacKay
Thursday, October 7, 2004 2
Thank you. Let me add my thanks for the invitation to be here today. It is always an honor to be asked to speak at a public forum. I also acknowledge that some of my students have even decided to show up and I am particularly honored by your presence.
Let me put my nostalgic credentials on the table first. My grandfather worked for the Union Pacific which meant that as a child I used to take rides on the Union Pacific with my grandmother. There are still stories told in the family about those various trips and about taking lunch down to the Union Pacific depot for my grandfather and so I also have these nostalgic railroad credentials. In fact that may be the extent of my credentials about the railroad, I need to admit to you that the railroad is not my field of study. I have been drawn into this study more recently with a project at the Golden Spike museum with a group of students.
As a public historian I supervise students who do curatorial work, archival work, and we had a chance to redo an exhibit that talked about the Chinese workers on the Central Pacific. I then went on to help the park do curatorial work on their collection and it raised again the issue that is always an issue in museum, libraries, historic sites and reenactment places, and that is how do you present the past to the public in the present? How do you help the public understand the past was as complicated and as messy as the present? And how do you bring to the attention of the public the best of the current scholarship?
So with those issues in mind I turn to some discussion about new scholarship on the Union Pacific railroad. Let me bring to your attention three major areas of new scholarship about the Union Pacific and about railroads in the 3
west in general. They really do come out of the last 20- 25 years of historical research that can be both labeled social history research and new western research.
The social historians have asked us to consider the past from the bottom up; from the lives of ordinary people. For the railroad, that means we are much more interested in the lives of the workers. And for the Union Pacific, that is the Irish immigrants, expendable because there were so many of them, expendable because they could be replaced, and literally expendable because they kept being blown up and having accidents, etc. Thousands of workers over six years of time worked on this transcontinental railroad and we are struggling to tell the story of their lives, both to find the information but also to present it to the public at our museums, and our public events. The social historians remind us that the story of the transcontinental railroad, the story of the Union Pacific, is not just a story of triumphalism; it is a story that is also about despair and hardship, ethnocentric discrimination, and a lot of stories lost. We are trying to find those.
I also wanted to bring to your attention new scholarship that geographers are asking. One area of scholarship is to look at town planning that the railroad companies did. The Union Pacific, for example, had a specific town plan for Cheyenne. The geographers, in looking at towns in the west, are bringing to our attention increasingly, some understanding of major town plans; the Pueblo Indian villages, the Mormon town plan or the plan of Zion, and the railroad plan, Cheyenne being one of the most important examples of this. What, for example, has caught scholars attention about the railroad town plans is that they are 4
deliberately planned off center, they are slightly askew. The speculation is, well, does this have to do with sunshine; does this have to do with surveyors who did not know what they were doing? But, nonetheless, there is a particular pattern and the scholars’ are curious about that, and bringing to our attention that we need to be mindful of the railroad as a town planner, not just as a railroad builder. But they really did affect the way that the land looked in the west in terms of town planning.
Furthermore, again as the geographers go back and take a look at the rights of way and the roots, the impact that they had on the environment, on the ecology, on the land itself. There is a lot of new scholarship to look at. One of the fascinating fields, for example, is that because the railroads became the second largest land owner in the west, second only to the Federal government that, of course, took the land in the first place and held a lot of land. If you want to find certain seeds and certain kinds of plants that have not been particularly disturbed for hundreds of years you follow the railroad tracks. That is where the seed researchers are gathering native plants and seeds that have not been hybridized. So again, the geographers bringing to our attention new services.
And then the new western historians are weighing in… I noticed that Richard White, one of the most distinguished of the new western historians is now turning his attention to the railroads particularly in terms of their corporate power and influence, and is looking at the first big businesses in the United States which were the railroads, and looking at the connections between their economic power and their political power. In this time, which for some historians 5
is being described as the “ New Gilded Age,” the historians are looking back at the previous Gilded Age and looking at the railroads as a particular player in this world that has become so familiar to us, a world of big business and the influence of big business on the government.
I want you to know that these three areas of scholarship are areas that scholars, historians, and geographers are particularly interested in. Again, bottom up history, town planning and the impact on geography and environment, and the relationship between big business, corporate interest and the government. That is where we are going to see some of the richest new scholarship. The challenge for museums and public organizations is going to be to present that new scholarship to the public. Thank you very much.
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