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The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  390 ratings  ·  51 reviews
America was made by the railroads. The opening of the Baltimore & Ohio line––the first American railroad––in the 1830s sparked a national revolution in the way that people lived thanks to the speed and convenience of train travel. Promoted by visionaries and built through heroic effort, the American railroad network was bigger in every sense than Europe’s, and facilitated ...more
Hardcover, 396 pages
Published September 25th 2012 by PublicAffairs (first published January 1st 2012)
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J.M. Hushour
Jun 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
A perfectly fine history of the American railroad as researched and seen first-hand by a British historian. The cultural and national distance is actually one of the things that drew me to this work, since outside observers are usually not as tendentious and prickish as locals.
Goes through all the motions for the layperson: the development of the technology, the early leaps made in New England and the greater northeast, then the 19th century heyday. The latter is the bulk of the book focusing on
...more
Kathleen
Oct 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
“There was, of course, one group that was happy to sit in boxcars. There had been hoboes on the railroads ever since the American Civil War, but with the Depression the phenomenon increased exponentially. Moreover, it was not just adults but a vast horde of teenagers who were on the move, estimated by Errol Lincoln Uys to number a quarter of a million in the 1930s: ‘Often as young as 13, each one came from a different background, each left home to ride the rails for different reasons, and each h ...more
HBalikov
Jun 25, 2015 rated it liked it
This is a fine read for anyone who wants to get a sense of how much of the USA's success as a nation can be attributed to the investment in railroads as a means of transportation. Wolmar does a fine job of carrying us from the initial development of railways, to their near collapse and current strengths.

I was enlightened by his spotlighting the Charleston & Hamburg's role in early railroad development and his insights into why Chicago became a hub, rather than simply a big station for railroads
...more
Steve
Dec 11, 2012 rated it liked it
A fair amount of interesting information here, but too much of it repeated over and over to m,ake for a successful book. The author seems to have done no original research, other than ride trains, and relies almost exclusively on other authors' secondary studies. His judgements and general analysis is good and insightful, but also tends to be repeated. A little more detail and less repetition would have made it much better. In many spots incorporates the author's native British railroad terms (e ...more
Millan
Feb 08, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: choice-books
Incredible book giving a great look into the past of the American railways. Shows both sides of the story, but does not overemphasize the bad side (indentured servants, etc.) like Howard Zinn.
Nathan Albright
Jun 29, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: challenge-2019
There is a great danger when historians of a given subject, like the history of rail transportation in the United States take off their historian hat and become advocate for various rail solutions, such as increased subsidies for rail transportation that hardly anyone wants to use.  The author tries to argue, using various dodgy means, that trains are an ecologically superior solution to transportation than private motor vehicles, but this book stumbles badly in serving both as a warts and all d ...more
Converse

The Great Railroad Revolution is a history of trains in the United States from their beginnings to the present day. The author, Christian Wolmar, also provides some background information about railroads in Britain early in the book, because steam trains originated in that country. The use of rails to reduce friction for moving heavy loads, such as ore from mines, has a long history. Horses were often use as the motive power before steam, and initially on railroads it was not uncommon for the h

...more
Norman Metzger
Jan 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
In the past few years I've been learning a lot about railroads, at least a lot for me.. My first lesson came from major tunnel construction in my neighborhood on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC. -- http://www.virginiaavenuetunnel.com/. The more recent lesson came quite unexpectedly from this fine book by Christian Wolmar. "Quite unexpectedly" because -parochial would be a fair term -- I simply didn't expect the book to be as absorbing as it turned out to be. Mr. Wolmar writes in prose that is cl ...more
Kenneth J. Olsen
It's an outsiders view

Wolmar heaps both praise and criticism on American railroads with the latter often sounding like the often typical British attitude that we Yanks are inferior to them. He did do a very respectable job in the very early railroad history here and of the Civil War period. On building the first transcontinental, some of his characterizations of key players were somewhat jaded. He was indeed right on target on his criticism of h o w our government ignored and mistreated our rail
...more
Randy A
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An extremely educational book on how, why, when and where the railroads were built. The author does a great job of explaining the corruption behind the scenes both privately and politically. Yet still conveys the importance of the railroad. A real credit to the persistence of American drive and foresight. It is sad to hear that so much corruption existed back in those early years and still is rampant today. However, the impact that the railroad had in the development of this country and the impa ...more
Alaine
Feb 24, 2019 rated it did not like it
Maybe if I had an obsession with trains, I would have thought this book was wonderful. But I don't. I read the whole ding-dang thing and still feel nothing about trains. I was mostly bored to death, but powered through because it was required for a class.

The two most important ideas I took from the book were that the Civil War wouldn't have happened without trains, and that hoboes are a proud people with an annual convention in Iowa. "Whereas hoboes travel and work, a tramp simply travels and be
...more
Carole B
Mar 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Wolmar’s The Great Railroad Revolution was a fantastic introduction. I’m still a little shell-shocked from reading it in one day last Tuesday, but I enjoyed the context Wolmar gave for each development. His tone was professional, confident and reliable probably thanks to the other eight hundred books about railroads he’s written. The texture of his writing was smooth and enjoyable, despite a few wrinkles. The other gift of this book was an informative bibliography; notes on the chief scholars, b ...more
Al Lock
Dec 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good overview of railroads and their impact on the United States. Sometimes seems to skip details on the assumption that they are known, but still gives a good overview on the rise and fall of American Railroads as well as their impact on politics, business and culture. The author's political biases show up sometimes, but that can be coped with. ...more
Ralph L. Meyer
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent and very thorough book on the development and present state of railroads, especially in the United States, although it often documents information as to what has or is going on elsewhere in the world of rail. It includes sections on light rail, streetcars, etc. A very thorough book!
R.L.
Apr 30, 2019 rated it it was ok
The economics and political and sociological angles of the history of railroads in the U.S. Very little about the technology. If it was the other way around, I would have enjoyed the book more. As it is, I found it very dry and hard to finish
Jbondandrews
Feb 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
A very fascinating look at the history of railways in America. Wolmar does an excellent job of explaining the Great Railroad revolution.
Conor
May 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great history of the railroad in the U.S. which shows how integral to the nation’s development railroads were and how large a part they still are but not as visibly.
Stephen
Jun 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The United States’ history is one written with novelty: born in the dawn of the industrial age, America was a blank slate for technologies with the potential to transform societies – technologies like the railroad. Rail historian Christian Wolmar sees the history of railroads and the United States as inextricably bound to one another: they came of age and rose to power together. Their mutual ascendancy is the source of The Great Railroad Revolution, a marvelous history of both.


The story of trai
...more
George
Mar 30, 2016 rated it liked it
In The Great Railroad Revolution, Wolmar looks both at how the railroads helped to shape the United States and how social and regulatory forces ultimately curtailed their success. Wolmar is British, providing him with a certain distance that works for him at times and against him at others. He appropriately compares the railroads' development in the United States to their counterparts in Europe, but his depiction of certain events in American history aren't completely convincing and there were t ...more
Matthew
Dec 08, 2012 rated it liked it
When I worked at The Great Train Store at the mall in Cincinnati while I was in college, we had a book on the shelf that I'm still annoyed that I didn't buy with my employee discount about the history of the railroad--a systemic understanding of the phenomenon rather than an approach about individual deeds and misdeeds. Unfortunately, this is not that book.

Christian Wolmar has done his research, but his British-ness shows, I believe, in the way that he fails to grasp some of the finer points of
...more
John
May 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: travel, history, railways
Christian Wolmar is an expert on the railways but is also, first and foremost, a very good writer, who is able to bend what might be dry and technical material into an entertaining narrative, in which the technicalities are subservient to the story, and history is enlivened with many vignettes and anecdotes.

This is the case with his previous railway history books, but in his latest he has excelled himself. The book is a compelling read, offering as it does a whole series of insights into two hu
...more
Orion
Apr 05, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I'd like to rate this book as a 4.5 because it has some flaws, but since it was so interesting I rated it as a five rather than a four star book. It is flawed in that the author extensively quotes from other writers; if he had done more independent research himself it would be a stronger text. The organization of the book is chronological, but certain eras are handled in much greater depth than others which makes the overall presentation somewhat uneven; coverage of the last few decades in parti ...more
Carl
Jul 02, 2013 rated it really liked it
As this book shows, the railroad is a prism to look at American history – it is deeply intertwined with American history. The railroad’s infancy was near the beginning of the United States, when the country was agrarian, almost a wilderness of unconnected small towns. The railroad grew up along with the country, supplying transportation and supporting industrial development. The railroad was an important factor in the Civil War (the author speculates that the South might have broken away from th ...more
Mel
Jul 14, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I recommend this book to any avid reader of U.S. history. Wolmar explains the differences of attitude to the advent of railways in the U.S. in terms of the Jeffersonian vs. Hamiltonian philosophies of early 19th Century and continues his survey through the Civil War, the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, robber barons, labor issues, the Progressive ICC regulations of the turn of the century and on to the modern era of competition with cars and trucks. Wolmar made me rethink some preconc ...more
Meredith
Mar 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Overall a very comprehensive overview of the history of trains in America - Wolmar is unapologetic about his pro-train stance, which makes for some unexpectedly spirited reading at times. I know some reviewers have taken issue with a "Brit's" take on America - I only saw this come through when he constantly referred to the *American* Midwest (we get it), and when he marveled over the fact that one president from Texas could be pro-train nationalization (Johnson) and one president from Texas year ...more
Jeramey
Apr 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: transportation
Enjoyable read that would seem to pair well with Richard White's Railroaded. I might also suggest reading The Big Roads for a history of road building. This book certainly doesn't delve into overwhelming detail given its extensive scope, but avoids glossing over anything.

Can't explain why but it felt like I had to read this book slower. Maybe that's because so much information was packed into a page (vs authors using more filler).

Author overuses the word "apogee," but I'm okay with that sin in e
...more
Roger
I was interested having done the Amtrak from Chicago to San Francisco. The overall impression is the book is too long, too detailed and tends to cycle back over itself often. However, provided you are interested in the subject its got a lot going for it in terms of the history, the haphazard nature of the development, the miracle the railways actually succeeded. Possibly reading it now what struck me was the rampant greed and naked fraud of many of the people involved.

American trains are frustra
...more
Sally Kilpatrick
So there's a lot of interesting information in this book, and it's always great to see your history through the lens of someone from another country. I learned tons about the true impact of trains to American history. I think that Wolmar did, at times, reach a little, but I'd have to read other sources to verify that.

My only complaint is that his thoughts are not always well organized. Sometimes he also gets bogged down in the minutiae of gauges and such when it's the people who really interest
...more
Jim Casady
Mar 29, 2015 rated it really liked it
Christian Wolmar is a British Author and this gives a certain measure of objectivity not always seen by authors who are writing history of their home countries. In addition, he provides a more global perspective and puts the development of U.S. railroads in a very good historical context. In addition, there are lessons to be learned about massive projects such as this and early efforts of government to subsidize infrastructure development that can be easily related to contemporary projects of si ...more
Tom Blumer
Oct 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
A concise overview of the American railroads. Their inception, dramatic rise in the late 1800's, their heyday through the first half of the 20th century, and their rapid decline to what they are today, which is basically freight haulers. If you enjoy railroads, you will enjoy this book by a British author who specializes in railroads. ...more
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Christian Wolmar is a journalist, focusing on the history and politics of railways.

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