Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reading past history

I know all history is past, but I just finally read a book that has sat on my shelves for decades -- so long that it became a kind of landmark there. It's Main Line of Mid-America: The Story of the Illinois Central (New York: Creative Age Press, 1950), by Carlton J. Corliss -- the official centennial history of one of the dominant Midwestern and Southern railroads, written near the peak of its corporate power and glory.

The book is sixty years old. Its subject has ceased to exist, although some of its physical lines are still run by other public or private entities. (Even the simplified Wikipedia article is hard to follow, but suffice to say that the railroad's former parent company was recently absorbed by PepsiCo.)

Reading a history book from the past, especially an official one, uncovers people's assumptions like nothing else. What's not in here? Much awareness of the rails' uphill struggle against other modes of transportation (trucks and planes) that received even more government help than they did. Women and black people are barely mentioned; and those pictured are uniformly old white guys. (Remember that?)

As a genealogical source, this is mainly historical context, although if you have research targets who worked on the IC or who lived in its corridor, you may find something specifically helpful. (There is an index and bibliography.) What struck me most forcibly was the powerful economic incentive the railroad had as an institution to paper over the Civil War as quickly as possible, and to return to ignoring the plight of the victims of slavery. If you want to know more about the enslaved people who helped build portions of the road, look elsewhere.

1 comment:

Jen said...

Just was googling my Grandfather and got a hit on your blog, nice to see someone would still read his works. Most people hardly understand the world of the railroads of yesteryear!