Making the Capitalist City: The B&O Railroad and Urban Space in Baltimore, 1827-1877

  • SCHLEY, David (PI)

    Project: Research project

    Project Details


    This project examines two of the critical transformations of the nineteenth century: the rise of the modern corporation and the development of the modern city. By looking at the relationship between the first railroad corporation in the United States, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), and its terminal city, Baltimore, this project shows that these two processes were intertwined in ways that historians have not yet recognized. Studying the corporation through the lens of urban history will contribute to a rapidly developing field, the history of capitalism. Historians have been attentive to the cultural dimensions of nineteenth-century capitalism, but this project will emphasize its spatial dynamics: the ways in which the development of capitalist institutions and ideologies entailed remaking urban space and reimagining economic geography.

    The railroad is widely recognized as a crucial agent in the development of the global economy, noted particularly for its critical role in the nineteenth-century’s “annihilation of time and space.” The unprecedented challenges of coordinating operations across hundreds of miles led railroad companies to develop business practices that later became standard procedures for large corporations. Yet the earliest railroads began not as engines of private profit but as agents of urban ambition. Baltimore’s municipal government launched the B&O in 1827 as a public project in the hopes that it would bolster the local economy. By 1877, though, the B&O’s private stockholders unhinged the company from its local moorings in order to manage it as an independent profit-seeking entity.

    This project suggests that to understand how an ambitious municipal project became a modern capitalist enterprise, we must look to an unlikely place – the city street. Applying tools of spatial analysis from urban studies to the field of business history, it will argue that competing visions of capitalism developed amid conflicts over the use of public space. As the railroad placed iron tracks in public thoroughfares to funnel shipments through Baltimore, it remade the street as a place of mechanized movement within a privately controlled communications system. In doing so, railroad executives reimagined the city as a “mere place of transit,” a node in a transnational economic network. It is a conception of the city that survives to this day in the notion of the “global city,” a place defined by its position in worldwide information systems. This project aims to show that the streets of nineteenth-century Baltimore can help us understand the origins of twenty-first century urbanism.
    Effective start/end date1/10/1630/09/19


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