Book Review: Twilight Rails by H. Roger Grant

H. Roger Grant, Twilight Rails: The Final Era of Railroad Building in the Midwest, University of Minnesota Press (2010). ISBN 978-0-8166-6562-4. 296 pages, hardcover.

The rural Midwest is littered with the remains of abandoned railroad lines. Many of these lines were pulled up in the latter decades of the 20th century after their trunk-line owners decreed that they had outlived their usefulness and the federal government made the abandonment process easier.

The saga of these post-deregulation lost routes has been well documented in a number of books and magazine articles, but the historical record gets thinner when it comes to telling the stories of rail routes that shut down during the heyday of the iron horse in the United States. H. Roger Grant’s latest book, Twilight Rails: The Final Era of Railroad Building in the Midwest, helps to fill this void in the historical record.

Twilight Rails presents eight succinct case studies of railroads built in the twilight era of U.S. railroad development. All of the companies that Grant studied were built during the first two decades of the 20th century and most were financial failures. A few enjoyed financial success but one, the Akron, Canton & Youngstown, survived largely intact into the 1960s. One of the eight, the Missouri, Arkansas & Gulf Railroad, never operated and is thought to have built less than four miles of track, if that. It did leave behind, though, two depots.

Grant argues that the worth of these twilight railroads extended beyond the balance sheets that bled red ink. They spurred economic development in their territories, helping to increase property values, prompting the establishment of new businesses and industries, promoting the growth of cities, and providing better access to distant markets. Some of the businesses and communities that developed along twilight rail lines long outlasted the railroads themselves. All of the twilight railroads were enthusiastically welcomed by the communities they served. “What became a distinguishing and historically significant feature of twilight railroads was the economic development they spawned,” Grant writes. “[E]ven the least successful road . . . improved the economic health of the area that it served.”

* * * * *

At the dawn of the 20th century, few in America could foresee a time when the railroad would not be the nation’s dominant form of transportation. Although the Midwest had a well-developed rail network by then, there remained pockets that lacked rail service. Dozens of communities chafed under the sometimes heavy-handed tactics of the sole railroad that served them.

This was the context in which twilight era railroads developed. Two of the railroads that Grant profiles were designed to link a region without rail service with another railroad. Two others served the same function while providing connections at both ends of the line. Two twilight railroads envisioned themselves as key links in a regional rail network. One was designed to be an interstate belt railroad outside Chicago while the AC&Y was created to serve industries in Akron.

All of the railroads that Grant studied had opened by 1918, with the Minnesota-based Electric Short Line Railway expanding in the 1920s and renaming itself the Western Minnesota. The twilight era coincided with the peak of electric interurban railway development in the Midwest and five of the twilight railroads considered building as electric railways. Only the Indiana-based St. Joseph Valley Railway ever put up wires and that covered a relatively short segment.

If the twilight railroads fulfilled a transportation need in their territories, this also led to the undoing of some. “Proponents of twilight-era schemes often thought that their endeavors were the last best hopes for their communities to obtain rail service,” Grant writes. “At times this sense of urgency and inexperience in railroad matters could lead to flawed management, dooming a paper project or a completed road.”

The twilight railroads also had the misfortune of coming along just ahead of the modern highway transportation era. Many shippers found that trucks traveling on all-weather highways better served their needs than did railroads, particularly for less-than-carload shipments.

Grant provides a summary of how each of the railroads came to be, how it was financed and outlines each road’s development. He devotes a chapter to each railroad, complete with a map showing its route, principal cities served and the railroads with which it connected. Photographs, advertisements and timetable pages also help illustrate each chapter.

Twilight Rails does not attempt to describe, let alone list, all of the railroads that sprang to life during the twilight era. Rather, the eight railroads were chosen to be representative of the era. Grant has chosen one railroad apiece for Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and Missouri.

This scholarly work is easy to read and Grant avoids getting bogged down in minute details that only a hard-core fan would want to know. He introduces us to such colorful characters as Elbert E. Young, the general manager of the Missouri, Arkansas & Gulf, whose leadership in seeking to get the railroad built was interrupted by a two-year prison sentence for illegally cashing a promissory note. Then there is Herbert E. Bucklin Sr., who invested into the St. Joseph Valley Railway the fortune he made selling patent medicines. After Bucklin’s death, the St. Joseph Valley collapsed.

Although the twilight era of Midwest railroad development lasted until 1930, by then many of the railroads that Grant studied were gone or were about to shrink in size. The Great Depression of the 1930s exacted a toll on the surviving twilight era railroads. Some segments of these railroads were sold and continue to be used today. But this is the exception, not the rule, for the eight twilight roads that Grant profiles.

Some readers might dispute Grant’s conclusions of the economic value of the twilight railroads. His analysis tends to be more qualitative than quantitative, and whatever benefits these companies provided to their communities appear to have been mostly short-lived. A more in-depth economic analysis might find that the economic benefits that the twilight railroads brought were not necessarily significant or worthwhile. The returns on investment were meager at best and wasteful at worst.

Without naming anyone, Grant writes, “Some writers have dismissed the least successful carriers as being silly, impractical endeavors, [and are] particularly critical of promoters who pushed for construction as the industry started to wane.” While not necessarily sympathetic or supportive of those who founded and operated the twilight railroads that he studied, Grant does take the larger view that these companies served a useful purpose in their day.

Grant’s analysis reminds us that assessing the value of a “failed” enterprise is largely a matter of judgment and context. He notes that those who supported the twilight railroads and the Midwesterners who relied upon and put their faith in them could not have foreseen the economic changes that were about to occur or the major population declines in the rural Midwest that occurred in the 1920s and 1930s. These changes delivered the final blows to those twilight railroads that managed to last that long.

The twilight railroads, much like the interurban railways that exploded onto the Midwest countryside at about the same time, were a response to the transportation needs of their time. Much like the interurban railways, they served a useful but largely transitory function between the horse and buggy era and the modern highway era. With certain exceptions, few of these twilight railroads were likely to enjoy long-term prosperity given the economic characteristics of the territories that they served and the larger changes that were occurring in the nation’s transportation system.

Twilight Rails provides a cogent glimpse into why the twilight railroads developed, what needs they fulfilled and why they largely wound up being business failures. This book is essential reading for the railroad historian and for those who want to better understand why railroads arise what sustains them, and why they fail.  

Craig Sanders

About the Author

H. Roger Grant is the Kathryn and Calhoun Lemon Professor of History at Clemson University and the author of editor of 26 books, most of which address railroad or transportation history. He previously taught at the University of Akron and is a life member of the Akron Railroad Club.

About the Reviewer

Craig Sanders is an instructor of journalism and public relations at Cleveland State University and president of the Akron Railroad Club. He has published five books about railroad history.

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