Imperial Ties: The US Transcontinental Railroads in Global and Indigenous Contexts

AHA Session 93
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Jay Sexton, University of Missouri
Railroad Colonialism
Manu Karuka, Barnard College, Columbia University
Reenacting the Golden Spike
Julia H. Lee, University of California, Irvine

Session Abstract

This panel presents new scholarship on the U.S. transcontinental railroads, placing them in a global context and exploring their meanings to the people most impacted by their construction. These railroads, which were built across North America between the Civil War and World War I by private companies supported by generous government subsidies, functioned as instruments of American westward expansion and national incorporation. Historians have fruitfully explored the transcontinental railroads’ many impacts on U.S. politics, the American economy, the nation’s culture, and its environment during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in both popular accounts (such as Stephen Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World [2000]) and scholarly ones (like Richard White’s Railroaded: Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America [2011]).

This session moves the transcontinental railroads beyond the U.S. context in which they are usually studied and discussed. By bridging indigenous history, global history, settler-colonial studies, Asian American studies, and the history of technology, this panel recovers the U.S. transcontinental railroads as manifestations of imperial infrastructure. These railroads reached into indigenous nations within North America as they reached out toward the Pacific Ocean and Asia. They resembled colonial railroad projects elsewhere in the world. And they left a legacy of violence and erasure that Chinese and Chinese-American people have recently grappled with through historical and artistic re-enactments.

By emphasizing the global and indigenous dimensions of the transcontinental railroads, as well as their long historical shadows, the four papers on this panel depart from traditional narratives centered on the United States. Taken together, these papers show how critical evaluations of the U.S. transcontinental railroads can illuminate other aspects of U.S. history, from indigenous dispossession to globalization to memory and remembrance. This panel invites scholars to consider connections between steam technology, mobility, sovereignty, and violence, in both the past and present.

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