Laying Rail for World Domination

Asa Whitney, railroad promoter

Asa Whitney, railroad promoter

Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, saw the potential rewards of a transcontinental railroad early on and described them in an 1848 memorial to Congress:

our continent is placed in the centre of the world; Europe, with 250 millions of population, on one side, and all Asia on the other side of us, with 700 millions of souls. […] this proposed road will change the present route for all the vast commerce of all Europe with Asia, bring it across our continent, make it the world tributary to us, and, at the lowest tolls, give us 25 millions of dollars per annum for transit alone. It would bind Oregon and the Pacific coast to us, and forever prevent the otherwise inevitable catastrophe of a separate nation growing up west, to rise at our decline, and control us and the world. It would open the vast markets of Japan, China, Polynesia, and all Asia to our agricultural, manufacturing, and all other products. It would open the wilderness to the husbandman, and take the products of the soil to all the markets of the world. It would make available and bring into market lands now too remote from civilization, and all millions of wealth to the nation. The labor of the now destitute emigrant would grade the road, and purchase him a home, where comfort and plenty would surround all. Man’s labor would receive its proper reward, and elevate him from inducement to vice and crime. It would unite and bind us together as one family, and the whole world as one nation, giving us the control over all and making all tributary to us.

Whitney certainly got a bit carried away there, but the commercial and political benefits made sense to all sections even if they did not result in global domination. The new American West, the fruit of the South’s campaign against Mexico and gateway to hoped-for future expansions, required consolidation. California might have slipped into the Union free and undivided, curse it, but slavery could still have a future in the New Mexico and Utah territories and, with some luck, Baja California, Sonora, or other points south of the Rio Grande. For the North, the usual constellation of farming and industrial interests wanted the railroad to open the frontiers to further, speedier settlement. Both sections, naturally, teemed with people who wanted to ride the railroad to riches.

But how could a project of that magnitude, civil engineering on a scale unheard of in the mid-nineteenth century, come to pass? The cost of the railroad and the land it would run on, dwarfed all the previous canals and rails stretched across the nation. While railroads, canals, and riverboats added up to a kind of big business in the early 1800s, to span the continent would demand a bigger business than any before. Whitney had a plan for that too.

From Lake Michigan to the Columbia River, or to Puget Sound, Whitney would build the railroad with his own two hands. A classic self-starting free enterprise entrepreneur of the nineteenth century, Whitney would work these wonders with nothing but a massive government handout: A strip of land sixty miles wide from the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan to the Pacific. No need to survey; Whitney would do it himself. No need to sell the land to Whitney at the normal price either, since much of it had little real value and his personal project would double as a tremendous national asset. Sixteen cents an acre would do nicely, thank you. Whitney would resell the land he didn’t need for the railroad itself to fund its construction, moving forward as the money came in. The High Plains and Rocky Mountains, Whitney suspected, would not bring in great piles of money. But Whitney assured Congress that he could build the whole railroad on the profits from selling the eight hundred miles of good land out to the Missouri River.

At the end, fifteen or twenty-five years down the line, he would hand over to the United States a railroad all its own, run by the government at great profit without the nation having to spend a dime to build it. Whitney made a fortune, the nation got a railroad, and everybody went home happy. Congress needed only act swiftly, before the speculators snapped up all the good land on the route’s eastern end.

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