Lethal Passengers: Railroads as Disease Carriers in India, Mexico, and Brazil, 1860–1920

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Matthew Esposito, Drake University
Of all the causal agents that spread disease, railroads have been the most curiously neglected in the writings of the past two centuries.  With over one million publications about railroads worldwide, the number of scholars who wrote about the link between railroads and disease remains infinitesimal.  Few historians still question the overall cost savings, public utility, and safety record of railroads in the U.S., Europe, and Japan, but a tragic byproduct of the transportation revolution was the role that railroads played as carriers of deadly pathogens.  If underdeveloped world regions in the late-nineteenth century were incubators for endemic and foreign germs, then railroads were rapid delivery systems for epidemic diseases.  The abrupt onset of mass transportation industrialized the distribution of germs to populations that were unprepared for death rates seen only in wartime or famine.  Railroads artificially reshaped natural environments and local ecologies, amassed laborers in areas rife with disease, and circulated water-, animal-, and human-borne germs.  Millions of passengers rode the rails to work, fight, and travel.  The new mobility brought passengers and other pathogenic hosts, such as mosquitoes, fleas, flies, and lice to regions previously spared of epidemics.   This study of the human costs of railroad construction and operation sets out to prove a paradox of modernization:  the earlier, faster, and cheaper a railroad was built, the deadlier it proved as a mechanized carrier of disease.  Prior to the 1890s, railroads reached equilibrium with other causal factors of epidemics.  This spread of mosquito-borne diseases in India, Mexico, and Brazil shows how the human costs of railroad technology were actually higher from 1860-1920 than previous eras.  Three railroad projects built during this time period were synonymous with death:  the Bhor Ghat of India, the “Callejon de Muerte” of Yucatan Mexico, and the Madeira to Mamoré “Devil’s Railroad” of Brazil.
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