November 5, 2006

Trains! (conference liveblogging)

Back at the Social Science History Association for an early-morning Sunday session. Going to a session Sunday morning at 8:15 is one of those character tests, largely because a large chunk of a weekend conference has either left or is in the process of checking out of a hotel and getting to the airport. I'm staying in town to give a seminar tomorrow, so it's a matter of academic citizenship in some way to go to some session, any session, and stay awake through the whole thing.  There was no session at 8:15 in the education network, so I'm free to indulge.  And I chose a session on historical geographic analyses of railroads.  The attendance is about 15, darned good for an early Sunday morning session. And there was a reason for that... (details of the session in the full entry)


After the session chair opened up with a set of puns (I'll try to keep everyone on the rails), Richard Healey starts with a discussion of railroad and economic development in 19th-century Pennsylvania. The operative question is how closely railroad development is linked to mine developments. He compared three human-crafted transportation modes (plank roads [where the ruts were only two inches deep], canals, and railroads). The advantage of going to a GIS (geographic information systems) session is that there are plenty of maps, in this case historical maps and constructed analytical maps along with some photographs. Healey has a great photograph of a crash of several boats at a bridge from the pond freshet method of transportation, which was simply a bunch of folks on boats waiting for someone else to release a significant part of water from a pond and then try to go downriver on the gravity wave... until a bridge appeared ahead. With the raw bitum iron industry, Healey says that there were several waves of development (and one bust associated with the 1857 bank collapse). In the case of Pennsylvania oil fields, railroads had a hard time keeping pace, and there were multiple ways of trying to transport oil.  The coke coal region near Pittsburgh had awful coincidences before the Civil War because it was hard to make canals there and the Pennsylvania Railroad decided not to finance it because of low anticipated traffic.  And then a railroad line was finally laid... in 1857 (economic crash!). So the coalfield region in Connellsville didn't seriously develop until the 1870s (which Healey thinks is tied more closely to the industrial advantages of Connesville coke coal). 

William Thomas is discussing railroad development more broadly, the difference between regional networking and a national consequence.  He started with a picture of 1880s railroad development along the eastern shore of Virginia, which he thinks is the last place to get a railroad in the continental U.S. (It was the 19th century equivalent of being offline, for those of us addicted to the internet.) Thomas's project is multifaceted, stretching from the mundane to the the way that engineers/managers' visual representations of elevations and systems created new models for spacial representation. (That was a surprise; I thought he'd talk about paintings and sketches that included railroads in 19th century landscape imagery.) His phrase "national system" makes me think about Henry Clay's idea of a national system and the difference between the ideology of a nation (which was old) and the ways in which everyday life clues us into social networks beyond our daily life.  You need to have everyday things that give one awareness of a larger sense of humanity to get that sense of networks.  This morning, in the middle of a session, I could (but won't!) check my bank account, e-mail my spouse and friends, etc. I have my cell phone in my pocket (silenced!), with which I could call home or anywhere in the world. This morning, I ate breakfast in a chain breakfast place. Enough digression. The surprise of this presentation is that there is not yet an historical GIS database of national railroad development. He'll probably get a grant to develop it (or someone will). His website on Nebraska and Iowa is matched by Healey's Pennsylvania system GIS project.

Robert Schwartz has done an enormous amount of historical GIS stuff on railroads. His course website on the Industrial Revolution and the Railway System is a good example of leading-edge visual material use in teaching. (Just go explore.)  He starts by contrasting Schwartz's project for the U.S. with the French system in the 19th century, where "all roads lead to Paris." His main presentation is on railways and agricultural crises in England and France in the late 19th century. While the population shifted to urban areas and non-agricultural employment and the franchise expanded in both countries, the decreases in transportation costs created agricultural depressions, what Karl Kautsky called The Agrarian Question (1899). Kautsky explained the persistence of farms as self-exploitation. Schwartz points out that half of the world's population is tied to agriculture, so we should pay attention to the continuing dismantling of household economies. Economic historians, on the other hand, say that those depressions were more illusion than reality. Schwartz says that the extension of railroads into the British countryside had some interesting economic consequences beyond the agrarian economy in subregions. But there were variations in the crisis, with less of a crisis (in the region where Tess of the D'Urbervilles is set) in the valleys where dairying may have ameliorated the stress, in contrast with the arable parts of the chalklands. Schwartz then discusses France's agrarian crisis. The general story is of rail transportation creating economic expansion and intense competition, and it transformed the agrarian landscape.

Ian Gregory's comments are not that surprising.  He's also glad there were plenty of graphics early Sunday morning. He's struggling with the central question with historical GIS: how do we work with space in more than another way to do multiple regression. He applauded the presenters for using the spatial analysis to get at context and scale issues.

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Posted in History on November 5, 2006 10:16 AM |