A Natural History of the Early American Railroad

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Abstract

Early railroad advocates promised that steam locomotion would allow human enterprise to triumph over natural limitations—to "annihilate space and time"—yet they simultaneously situated the new technology within prevailing understandings of nature, geography, and commerce. In Baltimore, the birthplace of American railroading, citizens ranging from artisans to bank presidents imagined that the railroad's annihilative capacities would restore "natural" patterns of trade that had been subverted by the "artifice" of the Erie Canal. Examining how the pinnacle of nineteenth-century artifice could serve a natural order reveals the ways in which ideas about nature inflected the industrial pursuits of early republic Americans. Railroad supporters read what we would call geography as "nature," and they also considered many seemingly social phenomena—including business decisions, urbanization, and internal improvement—extensions of natural phenomena. For the railroad proponents, nature was not separate from society; rather, nature set the limits and determined the course of social action.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)443-466
Number of pages24
JournalEarly American Studies
Volume13
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015

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