The Evils of Railroads

I found this story on Futility Closet's blog here. The original source was the Vincennes, Ind., Western Sun, July 24, 1830: It reveals a canal stockholder’s argument against railways:

"He saw what would be the effect of it; that it would set the whole world a-gadding. Twenty miles an hour, sir! Why, you will not be able to keep an apprentice-boy at his work: every Saturday evening he must take a trip to Ohio, to spend the Sabbath with his sweetheart. Grave plodding citizens will be flying about like comets.

"All local attachments must be at an end. It will encourage flightiness of intellect. Veracious people will turn into the most immeasurable liars; all their conceptions will be exaggerated by their magnificent notions of distance. ‘Only a hundred miles off! Tut, nonsense, I’ll step across, madam, and bring your fan!’ ‘Pray, sir, will you dine with me to-day at my little box at Alleghany?’ ‘Why, indeed, I don’t know — I shall be in town until twelve. Well, I shall be there; but you must let me off in time for the theatre.’

"And then, sir, there will be barrels of pork, and cargoes of flour, and chaldrons of coals, and even lead and whiskey, and such like sober things, that have always been used to sober travelling, whisking away like a set of skyrockets. It will upset all the gravity of the nation.

"If two gentlemen have an affair of honour, they have only to steal off to the Rocky Mountains, and there no jurisdiction can touch them. And then, sir, think of flying for debt! A set of bailiffs, mounted on bomb-shells, would not overtake an absconded debtor — only give him a fair start.

"Upon the whole, sir, it is a pestilential, topsy-turvy, harum-scarum whirligig. Give me the old, solemn, straightforward, regular Dutch canal — three miles an hour for expresses, and two for jog-and-trot journeys — with a yoke of oxen for a heavy load! I go for beasts of burthen: it is more primitive and scriptural, and suits a moral and religious people better. None of your hop-skip-and-jump whimsies for me."

There were actually a lot of fears about trains in the early 19th century, some of which were merited, others not. There were plenty of houses, and even whole sections of towns, that were bought out and demolished to build the railroads, so plenty of people lost their homes and had to relocate. And it DID make it easier for people to flee crimes, but it also made it easier for the police to catch them and for them to be tracked.

There was  a great deal of anti-railroad poetry which depicted beautiful, bucolic Britain turning into some charred, blackened, iron-laid, screaming nightmare landscape. They thought that if you tried to connect all towns to the railroad, it would pockmark the entire country.

And while we may laugh at his fear at going 20 miles per hour, there were plenty of scientists and physicians who thought that traveling so fast could not be done, that the force of it would cause severe brain damage to those traveling. And while train travel certainly did not cause brain damage, it actually was the cause of a lot of deaths–there were a shockingly high number of train accidents in the Victorian era, so many so that the fatal 'train accident' became a huge part of a lot of sensation fiction, like Wilkie Collins's No Name and Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne.

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