Tag Archives: trains

Gilded Age!

When I was in high school I had a history teacher who was very passionate  about the Gilded Age – but as I was a callow and feckless youth, I thought it was all boring tycoons and railroads and stuff. Well, it turns out that there’s more to the Gilded Age than trains and big mustaches, and a lot of it is pretty darn interesting. So with belated apologies to my tenth grade history teacher (but I was only fifteen, so cut me some slack), I present a list of not-boring Gilded Age books.

The Floor of HeavenThe Floor of Heaven: a True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush, by Howard Blum – If you ever manage to pull off a spectacular gold heist, don’t try to melt down your ill-gotten gains in a frying pan over your campfire, or you’ll just end up with a gold-plated frying pan – that’s what I learned from this book. There are more prospectors and ruffians than tycoons in these pages, so save this one for when you get tired of bankers and millionaires.

The Murder of the CenturyThe Murder of the Century: the Gilded Age Crime that Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins – Oh, there’s a lot of fun stuff here – bloody ducks (yes, you read that right), a distinctively patterned oilcloth, an army of reporters on bicycles, and best of all – a headless, legless torso with some very unusual identifying marks that couldn’t be discussed in polite company. Ladies, it’ll give you the vapors.

TopsyTopsy: the Startling Story of the Crooked-tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly – Turns out that this one’s a great history of elephants in the United States and of the early days of circuses. Thomas Edison appears mainly as the evil villain (NOTE: the link is a spoiler and is NOT for the faint of heart), though to be fair, everyone was pretty evil to animals in those days. Bonus: Topsy and Edison are also the subjects of an excellent episode of Bob’s Burgers.

Conquering GothamConquering Gotham: a Gilded Age Epic: the Construction of Penn Station and its Tunnels, by Jill Jonnes – The Pennsylvania Railroad was miffed that it couldn’t get its trains into Manhattan like its chief rival, the New York Central Railroad. So with typical Gilded Age bravado they said, “Screw this!” and built a tunnel under the Hudson River. It was very muddy, squishy work. This is a neat book about finance, architecture, engineering, working conditions, and getting the bends.

The Devil in the White CityThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, by Erik Larson – An architect, a serial killer, a world’s fair, an oddly suspenseful low-speed pursuit – good times! If you’re only going to read one book from this list, make it this one. But it’s such a good book that you’ve probably read it already. (Suzy has, and she even mentioned it in an earlier post, which led me to state that “I am pretty sure that every librarian is required to write about The Devil in the White City at least once in their career”).

The Johnstown FloodThe Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough – The moral of this story? Rich people make lousy neighbors. A classic combination of history and disaster, with strong local ties. Since the book was originally published in 1968, it’s somehow more tasteful than modern disaster nonfiction, if that makes any sense – as if one can be tasteful about people burning to death in huge piles of flood wreckage. Still, good stuff.

AC/DCAC/DC: the Savage Tale of the First Standards War, by Tom McNichol – For those of you who’d like a little science with your tycoons and mustaches, we present Thomas Edison vs. local favorite George Westinghouse (with a little assistance from the nerd’s nerd, Nikola Tesla) in an electrical battle for the ages. Somehow we manage to go from electrocuting dogs (lots of dogs, reader beware) to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (re: The Devil in the White City) in slightly less than two hundred pages. It’s probably the shortest book on this list but it’s well worth the effort.

Passing StrangePassing Strange: a Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, by Martha A. Sandweiss – Fancypants white geologist Clarence King (one of the most blond-haired, blue-eyed people ever) was able to live a second, secret life with his black wife and their mixed-race children simply by creating a second identity and telling people that he was black. Apparently, that (and some clever scheduling) was all it took. Rather heavy on details from King’s point of view, as his wife (Ada Copeland) wasn’t in a position to leave a mark on history, to put it gently.

In the Kingdom of IceIn the Kingdom of Ice: the Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the U.S.S. Jeannette, by Hampton Sides – Any book that has people freezing to death in it is all right by me. This super fun book relates the chilly seafaring tale of an arctic expedition funded by eccentric (like, pees-in-your-piano eccentric) publishing tycoon Gordon Bennet. Things start out well – they spend lots and lots of money on supplies and a ship, pick up a whole mess of sled dogs (and give them amusing names), and head north. But then their newfangled Edison arc lights don’t work, the ship is crushed by the arctic ice pack, someone has a raging syphilis infection, people are forced to eat their pants, and it’s all downhill from there.

Meet You in HellMeet You in Hell: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership that Transformed America, by Les Standiford – More local heroes. I’m gonna be honest here and tell you that I read this one a while ago, and I can’t remember any particularly fun anecdotes other than maybe “Alexander Berkman is a lousy assassin.” But there’s a really good overview of the Homestead Strike, for those of you who (like me) zoned out for this particular chapter in our local history. Gunfights on barges would liven up any history lesson, right?

The Richest Woman in AmericaThe Richest Woman in America: Hetty Green in the Gilded Age, by Janet Wallach – Hetty Green was the daughter of a New England Quaker family, the original People Who Don’t Take Anyone’s Crap. And Hetty spent the rest of her life refusing to take anyone’s crap – and amassed a spectacular fortune in the process. Just read it.

A Disposition to Be RichA Disposition to Be Rich: How a Small-Town Pastor’s Son Ruined an American President, Brought on a Wall Street Crash, and Made Himself the Best-Hated Man in the United States, by Geoffrey C. Ward – Ferdinand Ward was, by all accounts, a smooth operator and a complete jerk – but to be fair, his parents were pretty jerky, too. Things start out slowly, as there’s a lot of religious and family history to wade through, but it really picks up when our little Ferd moves to the big city. This account was penned by his great-grandson, most widely known for his work on the PBS documentary series The Civil War (and apparently not a jerk).

These last few books are not quite Gilded Age; they’re early 1900s. But they’re pretty darn close, they have a lot of Gilded Age influences, and they’re super fun (“super fun” being a relative term).

Sin in the Second CitySin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, by Karen Abbott – A romp through the seamier side of Chicago that focuses on the high-class Everleigh club and the sisters who ran it. You’ll learn the origin of that “drinking champagne from a shoe” thing and some inappropriate things to do with gold coins. This book ties in nicely with The Devil in the White City and is nearly as awesome, though not nearly as murdery.

Empty MansionsEmpty Mansions: the Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman – Huguette Clark, the daughter of a wealthy senator, lived in her own little world and never wanted things to change. It’s the story of a lonely woman who was never really independent, who never learned the value of a dollar, and who was severely taken advantage of by her caretakers before her death. Part sentimental, part pathetic, and entirely fascinating (if you need more convincing, Eric wrote an excellent post about this book last year).

American EveAmerican Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, and the Crime of the Century, by Paula Uruburu – Another one with a local connection! Somewhat batty Harry Kendall Thaw, son of a Pittsburgh coal baron, marries turn-of-the-century hottie Evelyn Nesbit. He learns of her past affair with fancypants architect (and somewhat pervy) Stanford White, and shoots him in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Trials and scandals and secrets and madness abound.

– Amy, who didn’t have access to interesting nonfiction when she was in high school


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For the Love of Trains

I come from a train family. My great-grandfather worked on the Delaware and Hudson Railway for 47 years, and literally died on its tracks. He instilled in my father a love for trains, and my father did the same for me when I was a child. Now, I intend to pass a love for trains on to my own son.

My love for trains lay dormant for awhile as I pursued other interests as a teenager and twenty-something. But those transient years apparently weren’t enough to wipe trains from my memory. As I’ve emerged into adulthood, trains have again become one of my biggest interests. Why? I have a few ideas that I think most train buffs will be able to relate to:

1. The Power. Trains are an engineering marvel that helped build the world, and it’s easy to be awestruck by a 1,600 horsepower diesel engine (or several) pulling hundreds of cars filled with thousands of tons of coal or freight. The power of trains is what brings out the child in us as we’re humbled by their might. At the same time, this power reminds us of the greatness that people can achieve.

2.  The Artistry. Though filled with immense mechanical power, trains were also made to be aesthetically pleasing. As far as diesel engines go, I’m a big fan of the round-nosed ALCO PA’s, as seen here. But trains also add a lot to scenery; whether an industrial landscape or a wintry mountain forest, trains add beauty to the world rather than detract from it.

3. The Collectibility. Trains are utterly collectible due to the immense range of varieties that exist. And, it’s possible to collect a lot of different things related to trains, such as images of certain trains, train rides, or model trains. I attended a model train show recently, and I noted the detail with which model train collectors can become involved when a man next to me to pointed at an HO scale No. 19 Delaware and Hudson ALCO PA1 diesel engine and said “they have 19, but I need 17.” There are actually four models of these diesels, 16 through 19, and I need them all.

4. The Lineage. For all of the reasons above, a love for trains is easy to transfer to younger generations. Their power teaches; their beauty inspires; and their collectibility allows for these virtues to be physically passed along. Indeed, trains are a family thing, and even if my son should forget about his boyhood trains while he’s studying microbiology at Dartmouth, I’m sure he’ll return to them someday when he stumbles across his old train sets, and decides to pass them along to his children.

Are there any other train lovers out there?


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From the train you find the town

Last Saturday my husband and I rode the train from Washington DC to Pittsburgh. We dropped off a relative’s car in DC. Flying or driving back would have been faster, but a one-way plane ticket or car rental were more than twice the price of a train ticket. Even though only one train travels directly from DC to Pgh each day, and the trip takes at least eight hours compared to a 4 ½ hour car trip, I prefer the train, and not just for the price.

On the train are you are free to walk around. Coach seats include lots of leg room. Trains travel a route that feels almost invisible. On a train you sneak up on a town. You come in through the back door. A town that a highway passes by, a train glides through. On this trip, I carried books in my pack just for reading on the train. Looking out the windows held my attention for hours. I never did open a book.

Each town, farm, and river set me to wondering about life in that spot. From the train I saw alternative lives, possibilities not related to actual, probable choices, but exercises in imagination. Richard Hugo, in his book The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, recommended using strange towns as triggering subjects. Hugo wrote, “You found the town, now you must write the poem.” For me, the train provides ideal access to the town.

If an eight hour train trip is good, a cross country, 45 hour trip is better. My favorite route is Chicago to Seattle. The Empire Builder runs up the Mississippi, across the North Dakota and Montana plains, through Glacier National Park, into the orchards of Eastern Washington, and over the Cascade Mountains. It’s true that the train often runs late, but why worry about a few extra hours added to a two day trip? My husband and I joke that a late train makes the trip an even better value – you get to spend more time on board, and they don’t charge extra.



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