The South’s Railroad Problem

In 1851, when Albert Pike visited a number of the Northern states, he reported that Ohio at that time had 29 railroads and 830 miles of track in operation;  Pennsylvania, 52 railroads and 1,224 miles; and Michigan, which had entered the Union at the same time as Arkansas, 4 railroads and 447 miles.  In Arkansas, nothing.  Not a foot of track, not even any passable plank roads.

With the acquisition of the California Territory and the almost immediate discovery of gold, the construction of a trans-continental railroad was becoming more and more urgent, not only to enable travel within the United States but also to open it to the commerce of the Pacific.  Pike and others saw a southern route for that railroad—a route that would pass through through Arkansas—as critical to the economic regeneration of the state.  The southern route was also necessary in order to right the balance between the rapidly growing and industrializing North and the stagnant or declining South.

It didn’t happen.  Before the Civil War, Arkansas could not even manage to build its own in-state railroad.  Local squabbles and rivalries, and inertia at the top levels of state government, prevented anything from being accomplished.

A thousand miles away in Virginia, modernity was only slightly more advanced.  The Tidewater aristocrats, in love with their dream of an agrarian utopia, shuddered at the possibility of  disturbing that utopia with the vulgar commercialism of the North, and feared the intrusion of government into their private worlds.  Even though their state’s economy was being strangled by the lack of east-west connections, they made no effort to develop a statewide plan.  As a result, the railroads that were built by private investors went north-south, ignoring the inhabitants of the interior and their need for Atlantic and Midwestern markets. Those that were actually completed often did not connect with each other, or even use the same gauges. The disarray of the South’s transportation system contributed materially to the South’s loss of the Civil War.

What was paralyzing these and other southern states?  In a word, slavery.  In the slave-based plantation economy, most of the capital and labor were tied up by a system far less productive than that of the North.  The slave system also contributed to the lack of educated and motivated free workers, who had no wish to compete with the low cost of slave labor.  The prestige of a gentleman slaveholder was more highly valued than the grubbiness of commerce and industry.  And the increased contact with the outside world that would have resulted from proper roads or railroads posed a direct threat to the slaveholders’ control of their slaves.

As late as 1856, Pike was still advocating tirelessly for the southern railroad route.  But it had been doomed from the start.  Among the reasons given for its failure by the Little Rock Whig in 1854, three stand out: the refusal of southern states to cooperate with each other, the disadvantages caused by the South’s “peculiar institution”—and the destructive effects of “chivalry.”

Further reading:  Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia, by Susan Dunn, presents a compelling analysis of these issues.  Walter Lee Brown’s A Life of Albert Pike is exhaustively detailed but rather tough to get through.


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