The Price of Freedom

Western trails in Nebraska. Blue = Mormon Trai...

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Let’s start with a song, shall we:

Keep that in mind, we’ll be coming back to it.

As I sit here in my office, looking out the window, I can see 7 of the great American migration routes, from north to south:  The Lincoln Highway, US Highway 30, The Transcontinental Railroad, Interstate 80, The Platte River, The Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, and  the Pony Express Route. Think about how many hopes and dreams have passed through here.

Now combine that with Shenandoah. The song came about in the early 19th century and was made famous by US sailors all over the world. what does it speak of? It speaks of loneliness, of likely never seeing your friends and family again, and does it hauntingly. It was very appropriate for those sailors, and it was equally appropriate for (and loved by) those thousands/millions trekking through Nebraska on their way to a new and hopefully better life.

Why did they do it? Some, of course, to avoid the sheriff, or their girlfriend’s father but, mostly they were going to, not running from. To what? A better life, maybe, but they were going to have to build it themselves, and if you’ve ever driven I-80, you know what a trek it is today, let alone to walk it, as most did.

What motivated them is the same thing that has motivated American from the very beginning: Freedom. Freedom to build your own life. Freedom to be left alone, Freedom to be the very best that you can be.

What was the price they put on that freedom? That they would most likely, whether they succeeded or failed, never see their family and friends again. If they were very lucky they might receive a few letters in the course of the rest of their life.

And remember, it was out here, on the Oregon trail (and it’s fork in the road, the California trail) that the saying became true. “The sick died, the weak never started”, it was that kind of migration.

That freedom had quite a price, didn’t it?

What is yours worth?


Of Railroads and Governments

Route of the first American transcontinental r...

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I was reading over at Althouse the other day. Which if you don’t, you should.

Anyway, one of her commenters came up with that old shibboleth of leftist history teachers that the land grants were a subsidy to the railroads, especially in the Nineteenth Century, and it bugged me, as it always has. So here’s a little history lesson.

One of the first land grants to a railroad was to the Illinois Central, it was one of very few east of the Mississippi River, too. You see the IC had a problem, their franchise was to build a North-South railroad in Illinois. That sounds like a pretty good idea, right. It would have been too, in about twenty years. You see, south of about Champaign or so on the Indiana-Illinois line where the IC was to build was nothing but swampy wilderness. It would have been expensive to build a railroad (it was, when they built it, too) and anyway there wasn’t anybody to serve. There is not much point in investing a bunch of money to build a railroad to serve: Nobody.

Another one of those times when American Enterprise outran rhyme or reason. So, they went looking for a solution, after all, they wanted to be big shots, too. Seems likely they talked to their lawyer, he was a sharp young fellow from Springfield who signed himself A. Lincoln. Anyway they took their problem to their Senator, a guy by the name of Stephan A. Douglas who came up with a solution.

Since most of the land was owned by the Federal Government it was arranged that some of it would be conveyed to the railroad in a checkerboard fashion, in other words, one section went to the railroad, the government kept the next, and so forth. In total, the railroad received about 25 Million Acres. Land that we won in the Revolution.

So the railroad was in the land business. Looks like a subsidy, doesn’t it? It has been portrayed that way ever since. But lets dig a little deeper, here. The railroad has 26 Million acres to sell, BUT so does the government. The government had tried to sell this land for years, with a price of $1.25 an acre for some of the best farmland in the world. But they couldn’t sell it. Why?

About the only thing it was good for was farming, and that is what America did best in those days too. But when you farm, if you want to make a living, you have to sell your crop. At the southern end of Illinois you could load a boat on the Ohio river, so that area was settled. In Chicago, you could ship your grain on the lake (in summer, anyway, in winter the canal closed). In the middle of Illinois you’re pretty much screwed, grain is far to bulky to ship by wagon and flour doesn’t ship well (in those days). You can grow all the grain you want, but it will cost you more to get it to market than it is worth. (for more on this, see my “The Free market, a Case Study“.

American are smart, the farmers knew this and wouldn’t buy the land. But look what happens, they give half of it to the IC, who starts selling it and platting towns to serve the railroad, and especially building the railroad, and what happens. The IC sells their land but, so does the government. Now because crops can get to market, that land came into its own and goes on to set production records.

So did the government subsidize the railroads, or did the railroad subsidize the government. Looks like a pretty fair deal for all to me.

So Lincoln goes on to be President, and he believes we need a Transcontinental Railroad to bind California to the Union, not to mention all that gold.

So, he’s talking one day in Council Bluffs with an engineer named Grenville Dodge, and they are talking about the Transcontinental Railroad and Dodge says it should start there, while he is pointing at Omaha. Lincoln studies it and decides he is right.

In Washington there is a surveyor from California, named Theodore Judah, who has the same dream, sort of in reverse, he convinces Congress that the transcontinental should end in Sacramento. He is backed by California money, while the Omaha end has to raise money and none of them have anywhere near enough, and there is a war on.

So Congress and Lincoln recall how the Illinois Central deal worked out and decide to do it again.

This is much tougher building though, across what was thought of as the Great American Desert and the Sierra Mountains and the Great Salt Lake and what all. So they decided to use the checkerboard pattern again, only this time for 20 miles on either side of the route. They also chartered two companies; the Union Pacific to build west from Omaha, and the Central Pacific to build east from Sacramento, thereby setting up a race of sorts. (If you find this interesting, you should read: Nothing Like It In the World by Stephen Ambrose. It’s a fascinating story.)

So all across Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California alternate sections of land were owned for twenty miles each side of the railroad and it was all for sale. The railroad wanted money (sometimes with easy terms), but the government had passed the Homestead Act, so if you built a building and farmed it for a few years you could get 125 acres free. Heckofa deal.

The Union Pacific had a problem, though. It went from Omaha, then not much more than a village to Promontory Point, Utah, which had so much reason to exist that it is now a sign showing where Mathew Brady took his picture. There was no bridge over the Missouri river at Omaha either. So they had a railroad that started from nowhere went through nothing and ended nowhere.

Being smart business men, they had already figured this out and they made sure to make a profit on building the railroad because, they sure as hell would not on running it for years. And they didn’t. The UP went broke in 1893. But by then they had had so much interference from the government that there was no way to make a profit.

So how about the government. They got rid of their good land, some sold and some homesteaded and made some money on land they had mostly bought from France in 1803.

But all that land would still be unoccupied, except by Indians and buffalo, except for a few trails across it, without the land grants.

There are a few other land grant railroads, mostly the Northern Pacific which were built. But by then it had acquired a bad smell and was pretty much abandoned.

Then in the Twentieth Century the government built roads on their own dime and tried to kill the railroad all over again, and nearly succeeded. We should thank God everyday they didn’t manage to quite do it, though.

And that is the true story of the land grant railroads. A truly symbiotic relationship between government and business, that worked for both. We shouldn’t castigate it, we should try to duplicate it, or at least keep government out of the way.

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