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Going Places: Transportation Redefines the Twentieth-Century West.


By Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003, xix, 419 pp., $39.95 cloth)

Professor Schwantes defines the West as everything beyond the hundredth meridian, and the need to include the impact on transportation history of larger events broadens his discussion still further. The resulting book is a kind of free-wheeling quilt of intertwined accounts of geography, technology, personalities and events. For example, his discussion of the railroad era includes agricultural development, tourist promotion, standardized time zones, the effect on railroads of competition from waterborne freight, the copper industry and railroad electrification, the rise and decline of interurban electric railways, the railroad careers of copper-based financiers and railroad builders, the final transcontinental railroad connections and George Gould's frustrated ambition to assemble a coast-to-coast railroad, and government operation of the nations' railroads in World War I, accompanied by the author's occasional brief digressions into, for example, the astrological significance of copper.

Hard facts are here abundantly, sometimes presented using maps, charts, and tables. Schwantes's errors of fact are few and minor. The book is refreshingly free of ideological denunciations of wealth, railroads, auto makers, highway building, or regulatory agencies. Often examples are enlivened with personal anecdote, such as Schwantes's reflections on western transportation corridors as seen from his airplane seat. But he sometimes overdoes his conversational style: the federal government is almost invariably called Uncle Sam, for example. The visual images are evocative and well-matched to the text.

Schwantes adapts John Stilgoe's idea of transportation corridors as extensions of urban landscape to the distinctive features of western geography, arguing that aridity, rugged and mountainous terrain, economic reliance on extractive industries and locally specialized agriculture, and, even today, thin population have both shaped transportation and been shaped by it. Schwantes's corridors are not only railroads but highways and airways as well--waterways are given little attention--and Schwantes shows how each successive type of corridor has transformed the West anew.

Schwantes has published original research on transportation in the northwest, and his well-researched book makes effective use of a wide range of sources written at the time. His treatment of the railroad era and its decline, the interrelated development of highways and automobile travel, the dislocations caused by World War II, the postwar triumph of highways and of air travel, the reinvention (his term) of long-haul freight railroads and the effects of deregulation on the air industry are lively and informative. His list of references is extensive, but it is not annotated, and endnotes are primarily identifications of direct quotes; interested readers would have profited from some more direction.

At times, Schwantes writes somewhat loosely: "It became common for individual motorists to imagine any new stretch of highway had been constructed expressly for them. Drivers seemed to bond personally with the nation's highway network in the 1920s and 1930s, something train travelers frequently found impossible to do with large and aloof railroad companies" (53). One wonders how this claim is or could be supported. Similarly, sometimes Schwantes seems too quick to attribute causation: for example, he writes: "A person riding [an electric interurban car] as it ambled through the countryside from one stop to another--or worse, riding to work aboard a slowpoke streetcar--had only to notice his neighbor speed by in an automobile to be motivated to purchase one just as good or better for himself" (109).

Taken as an explanation for the decline of electric traction this seems facile. Even high-speed interurban ridership declined decisively, and people riding urban streetcars to work at peak travel times didn't see automobile traffic speeding by. Moreover, automobile ownership offers another explanation for electric railway ridership decline, namely the lower marginal cost of operating an automobile once one had been acquired. But these minor cavils aside, Schwantes has brought a lot of significant material together in one place and his book is readable and informative.

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Author:Bethel, A.C.W.
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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