Trains and death

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Jody Meacham
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Trains and death

Postby Jody Meacham » Mon March 10, 2014, 4:25 pm

I just finished a book called Train by Tom Zoellner, which is about the societal impact of the development of railroads around the world, and part of it reminded me of a series of posts last year in this section by Bruce Osburn. Bruce's posts were about the frequency and severity of train wrecks involving the Seaboard and Hamlet during earlier years of railroading. If I remember correctly, Bruce even asked as part of one of the posts why anyone would work on the trains.

It's important to remember that from the time of Adam and Eve until the early 1800s, when the first steam railroads were built in England, there was never a significant improvement in the speed of human land travel. It was all at the pace that a human, or an animal ridden by a human, could walk or run. Then came steam trains, and everything changed.

The book passage that brought me back to Bruce's post began by talking about the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, whose most famous character, Anna Karenina, committed suicide by throwing herself beneath a moving train in the book's final scene. That was Zoellner's introduction to the fear that trains -- these big new heavy, belching and fast-moving things -- inspired in the public around the world in the 19th Century and how that was reflected in literature:

"Tolstoy was only channeling an idea that had lurked in the subconscious of nineteenth-century writers almost since the birth of the train: the sense that it housed death -- metaphorical and actual -- in its bellows and cranks.

Part of this surely had to do with the physical novelty of the thing. Man had never traveled so fast before, and at such risk of a sudden and devastating stop. There was the routine nature of everyday accidents reported in the newspapers -- brakemen and engineers who saw their own legs sheared off by the blades of the wheels, tramps crushed by the force of carriages slamming together, passengers hurled across rows of seats when two trains collided at a diamond. A journey by train was an existential distillation of life itself, a thoughtless glide through time and space over which always hung the possibility that everything could be cut short by a force the rider was utterly helpless to affect, all the while tugged along by a dynamo that could not be seen except for trails of smoke and cinders. To a passenger in his berth, the engine was as invisible as God.

A French scientific encyclopedia, although generally enthusiastic about railroads, made the following observation in 1845: 'Steam power, while opening up new and hitherto unknown roads to man, also seems to continually put him in a position best compared to that of a man who is walking along the edge of a precipice and cannot afford a single false step.' "
Jody Meacham
HHS Class of 1969

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