Station to Station

Occupy Railroads: Dennis Drabelle’s ‘The Great American Railroad War’

The Great American Railroad War claims that Gilded Age journalists took on railroad tycoons—the equivalent of today’s Wall Street fat-cat bankers—and won. But Eric Herschthal says the press was no hero.

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Today, both parties view banks as “too big to fail.” The presidential candidate of one of the parties, Mitt Romney, cites the reckless free-market ideology of “creative destruction” with giddy approval. If you think the current era of politicians being beholden to a tiny class of elite businessmen is anything new, think again. American history has seen it before, beginning with the Gilded Age’s railroad tycoons. Men like Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington, executives of the railroad monopoly Central Pacific, amassed a fortune in the post–Civil War era in much the same way today’s Wall Street firms have. They made risky investments that required virtually none of their own money and instead relied on massive government loans and bailouts when their projects went south.

Dennis Drabelle, in The Great American Railroad War, spots a good historical precedent to today’s times. But he takes the strange step of arguing that two Gilded Age writers, Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, managed to bring Central Pacific down. He sees their anti-corporate writing—Bierce’s 1896 series for the San Francisco Examiner attacking a railroad-friendly refinance bill and Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus—as instructive lessons for how a financially secure and independent media, contra what we have today, can “give the rich and powerful hell.” Drabelle has picked the right villain, but he’s got his heroes all wrong.

Calling Bierce’s caustic, tendentious columns “one of the signal achievements of American journalism,” Drabelle goes over a period in American journalistic history that is more useful as a study in failure than purported success. Bierce found fame as a gothic short-story writer and witty aphorist long before he got the call from William Randolph Heart, owner of the Examiner, to write a series attacking a controversial railroad refinance bill snaking through Congress. The bill would have given Central Pacific’s sister company, Southern Pacific, another 85 years to repay its already 30-year-old government loan. The original loan—which dated back to the Civil War, involved an estimated $5 million in bribes to politicians and journalists, and ultimately created one of the most powerful monopolies in American history—had already been despised for decades. So when the bill collapsed amid Bierce’s five-month crusade against it, Hearst had shrewdly celebrated his paper’s work, covering the bill’s defeat as if the fight against Gilded Age crony capitalism was over and all his paper’s own doing. Drabelle essentially does the same.

Never mind that, three years later, Southern Pacific would get a still favorable, if less unseemly, deal that reduced its original $75 million loan by 20 percent, payable over 10 years. Or that other newspapers, while taking railroad bribes like Hearst, had been fomenting public opinion against the robber barons for decades. Or that, as historian Richard White argued in his much better 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Railroaded, the real legacy of the robber barons is a corporate culture utterly dependent on politicians, and vice versa, and that is with us still.

What’s more, Bierce, as Drabelle acknowledges, was not really an anti-monopoly hero. In several of his earlier opinion columns, Bierce came out in support of Central Pacific’s executive, Collis Huntington, often siding against the tycoon’s real archenemy, the labor unions, which Bierce had an “almost visceral disdain for,” Drabelle writes.

So why did Bierce, finally, in 1896, become a populist champion? The answer: William Randolph Hearst. He personally courted, paid, and flattered Bierce, asking him to write a premeditated hit series against his sworn enemy, fellow millionaire Collis Huntington. Not only was Hearst a Democrat and almost all the robber barons die-hard Republicans, but just two years before Bierce’s series began, Huntington had reneged on his bribe to pay Hearst’s paper with copious ad sales for favorable news coverage. Hearst was canny enough to realize that, even without robber-baron money, he could get even wealthier if he simply sold more papers through sensationalist reporting.

Drabelle writes about all this, but only to brush it aside and insist that Bierce was some sort of morally rigorous truth teller. It’s an odd position to take on a polemicist and short-story writer who had consistently condescended to his newspaper readers. Since readers didn’t really care about the outcomes of news stories, Bierce wrote in one column, a journalist should “confine his efforts and powers to accomplishment of two main goals: 1—entertainment of the reader; 2—personal gratification.” Bierce took his own advice seriously. Here’s one of his published attacks on Huntington: “In the past twenty years there has been no day when [Huntington] did not deserve to be hanged upon every limb of every tree of every acre of land which he has consecrated to his company’s use.” Compared to this Rush Limbaugh sounds tame.

As for Norris’s anti-railroad novel, The Octopus, Drabelle puts it on par with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, seeing all of them as exemplary social-protest novels “that have exerted a profound influence on American politics.” But here his case seems just as weak. The Octopus may have been an impassioned, elegantly written book that captured the public perception of robber barons as venal and ruthless. But the evidence is overwhelmingly against it having any tangible political effects. By the time it was published, the Southern Pacific’s refinancing bill had already been settled, and Huntington, the last of its surviving executives, was dead. The families of Central Pacific’s executives—the Stanfords, the Crockers, the Huntingtons—inherited all their money, and progressive reformers would not score substantial political victories until almost a decade after Norris’s novel was published.

It would be easy to fault Drabelle, an editor at The Washington Post, for trying to rally today’s journalists behind a fiction writer. Yet Drabelle’s general point is apt: fiction, perhaps even more than fact-based journalism, can have real social effects. The problem is that Drabelle’s most interesting chapter on The Octopus is about how Norris grossly mischaracterized what actually happened in the notorious Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880. For the climax of his novel, Norris drew directly from that real event, in which local marshals, acting on behalf of Southern Pacific, murdered five settlers who refused to give up their disputed land to the railroad. Norris turned the settlers’ armed vigilante group, the Settler’s League, into irreproachable victims. In fact, like the Ku Klux Klan, they were masked terrorists. But why go through all the trouble of debunking Norris’s main plot if, in the end, Drabelle’s point is that a little fictionalization can be a good thing?

Drabelle should be given some credit for showing the striking resemblance between Gilded Age crony capitalism and today’s political culture. He should also be praised for putting a light on two overlooked prose stylists. But make no mistake: Ambrose Bierce, Frank Norris, and the media history of which they were a part are poor models of journalistic integrity. Theirs was a culture in which sensationalism, unashamed bias, and populist pandering were the norm—ironically, one a lot like our own.