In The World the Trains Made, James D. Dilts offers a visually rich and evocative study of the railroad architecture that has survived the decline, collapse, abandonment, and bankruptcy of the railroads. In the nineteenth century, railroads were the largest and most prosperous businesses in North America, the very symbols of the Industrial Revolution. All along the right-of-way—what historian John Stilgoe calls the “metropolitan corridor” of tracks, stations, and associated buildings, from New York's magnificent Grand Central Terminal to the thousands of one-room stations in rural settings—“the railroad represented modernity.”1 “Civilization literally followed the wave of railroad construction across North America,” Dilts writes in his preface (ix). Even if served by only one local train per day, the typical railroad station included a telegraph office and often a post office. These helped tie rural communities, small cities, and major metropolitan regions into a complex web, with the railroad providing the connecting trafficways.
Dilts identifies “adaptive reuse” as a key subtext of his book. Just a fraction of the stations and associated structures he covers are still functioning as railroad facilities. Today, Grand Central Terminal serves only the New York area's Metro-North commuter trains. No longer does the sleek Twentieth Century Limited depart the station each evening on its dash to Chicago. Amtrak's long-distance trains all arrive at and depart from Penn Station, located in the hideous basement of Madison Square Garden. Grand Central came within a hair's breadth of following McKim, Mead & White's Penn Station under the wrecker's ball. It survived only because of the outrage stirred by Penn Station's demolition—an incitement for the modern historic preservation movement—with its interior renovated into spaces suited for upscale shopping and expensive restaurants. In downtown Detroit, the abandoned Michigan Central Station—designed by Whitney Warren, Grand Central's architect—long stood as a stark symbol of that city's decline. Filled with debris and covered by graffiti, it shared the fate of thousands of other railroad buildings nationwide. Dilts might have included this station and others like it to illustrate the problems of adaptive reuse as a preservation strategy. Fortunately, in January 2020 the Ford Motor Company announced its plans to convert the Detroit station, which it purchased in 2018, into the centerpiece of a high-tech innovation campus. Had Dilts highlighted such abandoned-but-surviving railroad architecture, he could have further dramatized what indeed has been saved, as illustrated by his book's beautiful photographs.
One strength of this book is that the author clearly understands how the architectural environs created by the railroads extended well beyond the passenger platforms. A grand station provided an elaborate gateway to a metropolis. Terminal Tower in Cleveland, Station Square in Pittsburgh, Union Station in Kansas City, Main Street Station in Richmond, and King Street Station in Seattle, among many others, were all designed to impress arriving visitors. Adjacent park spaces and public squares provided elaborate settings. Whitney Warren compared such gateway stations to the triumphal gates of ancient cities: “The city of today has no wall surrounding … as a pretext to such glorification, … nonetheless the gateway must exist … which discharges the human flow in the very center of the city.”2 Warren's sentiments gave voice to the aims of City Beautiful planning. Grand Central provided a gateway to the new “Terminal City,” the vast real estate construction project the New York Central Railroad built around its new terminal, stretching from Lexington to Madison Avenue and from Forty-Second to Fiftieth Street. Terminal City transformed Midtown Manhattan.
Railroad companies spent fortunes building their grand passenger stations, despite the fact that hauling freight remained their major source of revenue. Freight required much more by way of mundane depots, warehouses, and grain elevators. Such utilitarian architecture had to be positioned as near to the tracks as possible. Manufacturing companies were often located nearby, creating an industrial, commercial landscape along the railroad right-of-way through small towns and cities. When riding an Amtrak train from New York to Washington, D.C., a passenger can still see outside the window miles of a blasted railroad landscape crowding the tracks, filled with ruined freight depots and factories—an industrial world long ago abandoned by a postindustrial economy. Dilts includes several photographs of these former warehouses and depots, many of which, over time, have been converted to other uses. Silo Point in Baltimore, for example, once filled with large grain elevators, is now an upscale housing complex.
Other important components of the railroad landscape were the many large office buildings that accommodated armies of managers, engineers, and clerks. To function, the railroads needed a well-organized corporate bureaucracy, especially for the major trunk lines, which managed enterprises stretching from the Atlantic coastline to the Midwest. For this reason, historian Alan Trachtenberg has argued that the railroad corporations initiated the “incorporation of America.”3 Dilts features seven examples of office buildings in St. Louis, Albany, and Montreal, as well as New York's Helmsley Building, all constructed by the New York Central Railroad. He notes that the Helmsley was part of Terminal City but does not mention the other office buildings lining Park Avenue north of Grand Central. Park Avenue and Terminal City occupied the air rights over Grand Central's two-story underground electrified platforms and tracks. Income from these air-rights office buildings generated the revenue that the railroad used to finance the massive project.
In a chapter titled “The Back Shop,” Dilts investigates railroad maintenance and repair complexes: a 50-acre facility in Ely, Nevada; a station and small repair complex in Furnace, Pennsylvania; and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad's roundhouse and repair facility, now the B&O Railroad Museum, in Baltimore. A photograph of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway's shops in Albuquerque provides one of the book's rare illustrations of the railroad's abandonment and decline.
The “Grand Hotels” chapter features city-center hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The railroads constructed such hotels as tourist destinations to increase passenger revenue. Often situated miles from the railroads' main lines, they necessitated the further construction of branch lines, such as those that carried tourists to the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Banff Springs in the Canadian Rockies.
A story not told in The World the Trains Made is that of the hundreds of workaday hotels located near the stations in almost every city and small town from coast to coast. Rather than offering tourist destinations, these hotels provided basic service to millions of travelers and workers, and in doing so they became an important part of the railroad landscape. In the chapter “How They Lived,” Dilts includes discussion of three railroad YMCAs that were purpose-built to provide low-cost lodgings for both passengers and railroad employees.
While the book presents some beautiful photographs of the luxurious dwellings of railroad barons, these buildings are not railroad architecture per se. The Harry Packer Mansion in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, and Henry Flagler's Palm Beach, Florida, estate would fit in perfectly with the Gilded Age “summer cottages” along Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. These houses belong in another book, as do parts of Dilts's last two chapters, which focus on railroad bridges and tunnels, locomotives, and passenger cars.
In the chapter devoted to bridges and tunnels, the section on the Eads Bridge (1868–74) describes one of the era's most important engineering and construction innovations: the use of pressurized caissons to anchor the piers on bedrock 136 feet below the high-water mark. Named for its designer, James Buchanan Eads, the bridge spans the Mississippi River at St. Louis. It was a tremendous technological accomplishment, despite fourteen worker deaths from the bends, or decompression sickness. Soon after Eads began work, John Augustus Roebling followed his lead in using pressurized caissons to construct the two towers for the Brooklyn Bridge (1869–83) over New York's East River. This excellent chapter provides a succinct summary of how the railroads drove innovations in technology.
Dilts's book will be of interest to historians as well as preservationists. It thoroughly illustrates the creative reuse of nineteenth-century railroad architecture across the United States and Canada. In some cases, these buildings still serve as railroad facilities, but most are now being put to other uses. With the revitalization of many downtowns, the remaining abandoned and neglected central railroad buildings may survive if repurposed; they might even reemerge as gentrified destinations serving Amtrak passengers and revitalized local commuter lines.
John R. Stilgoe, Metropolitan Corridor: Railroads and the American Scene (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), 3.
Whitney Warren, “Monumental Gateway to a Great City,” Scientific American 107, no. 23 (7 Dec. 1912), 484.
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 3.