The History Of North American Rail, By Christopher Chant

Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

The History Of North American Rail is a book written by Christopher Chant although you will not find a lot text within its page. While the early pages of book, along with the beginning of each chapter, does provide one with a general history of the railroad industry of the United States and Canada it is predominantly filled with photographs (both color and black & white) in more than 400 pages (it is not an awfully large book, however, in terms of its dimensions). Overall, I found the book to be quite enjoyable perusing through the many historic photos that came from several different collections. There were a few downsides, however, at least for some railfans and historians who may enjoy such. First, since it is somewhat of a "coffee table book" the captions provided are not particularly detailed regarding location and information of the subject. Additionally, I did notice some factual errors with these captions (enough that the author may not be terribly familiar with North American railroad operations).

If you are not particularly familiar with the history of North America's railroads chapter one of The History Of North American Rail provides you with a general look at the subject dating back to the canal systems of the early 19th century (notably the Erie). Mr. Chant also highlights the beginnings of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, America's first common carrier system chartered in 1827. You will also read about the first successful steam locomotives operated in the country like the Stourbridge Lion, Best Friend of Charleston, Tom Thumb, and popular early wheel arrangements such as the 4-4-0 American type. The opening chapter concludes by discussing railroad development through 1860, just prior to the Civil War and its growth east of the Mississippi as well as the growing plans to expand further westward.

In the second chapter entitled, "The American Civil War & Westward Expansion (1861-1875)", the book covers both topics in about forty pages (many of which, of course, are page-length photos or paintings). If you are looking for a thorough history of rail operations during the war you are not likely to find it in this book. However, Mr. Chant does provide a very good overview of trains during the conflict and the role they played (if you would like to read an excellent history of operations during the Civil War consider The Iron Way by William Thomas). Perhaps most impressive regarding the coverage of the war is the superb, historic photographs featured. The second-half of the chapter describes the westward expansion, chartering of the Union and Central Pacific railroads, and eventual completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869.

The third chapter of The History Of North American Rail discusses the ruthless railroad tycoons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as the consolidation and takeover of smaller lines forming many of today's classic railroads (names like the New York Central, Milwaukee Road, Pennsylvania, Frisco, New Haven, etc.). Interestingly, it was the cutthroat nature of these empire builders (names like Vanderbilt, Gould, Drew, etc.) that seemed to care little about the public or its safety which ultimately helped force the government's hand at regulating the industry. It was not until the 1980 Staggers Act that greatly deregulated railroads did this strangling noose loosen. The rest of the chapter highlights the continued and surging growth of railroads through the beginning of the 20th century a time now widely recognized as the industry's Golden Age.

In the book's fourth chapter steam locomotives are covered during their technological height from around World War I through the end of World War II in 1945. Perhaps surprisingly, the fifth chapter breaks from its chronological timeline and features how many lines were built from surveying and right-of-way construction to bridge design and the elegant architecture of depots and stations. It is one of the longest chapters in the book at nearly 60 pages in length. Moving into chapter seven Mr. Chant begins to look at the Canadian roads and their history, particularly focusing on the two largest lines still in operation, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. This is the book's longest chapter at more than 80 pages.

Most railfans will enjoy chapter seven entitled, "Locomotives & Rolling Stock." While Mr. Chant offers insight into the subject if you are a fan of the hobby you probably already a good, general idea of everything covered. What makes this section so interesting is the many classic photographs featured such as the Norfolk & Western's large steam locomotives, large electrics, NYC steam, early Chessie System shots, venerable streamliners, and many other related subjects. The photos range from all across the country although generally cover only American lines. In chapter eight you can learn a general history of passenger train travel which begins by looking at the first such services provided in the early 1830s to the creation of Pullman in latter 19th century, and finally the newfangled streamliners of the 1930s. Somewhat surprisingly, almost no streamliner photos are featured here although there are several good photos of early Pullman cars highlighted.

The book's ninth chapter is another good one for railfans, which covers freight operations and again offers a wonderful collection of classic photos from the Santa Fe to Conrail and Southern Pacific. Finally, chapter ten briefly looks at early interurbans and how those systems evolved into today's light rail transit (LRT) and heavy commuter rail operations (it only offers about 30 pages of information and photos). Despite the factual mistakes and lack of descriptive captions, The History Of North American Rail is still a good book that is worth a spot in your collection just for the photos if nothing else!