Sunday, May 29, 2016

Custer, the Gilded Age, and Trains

I recently read Terry Mort’s Thieves Road: The Black Hills Betrayal and Custer’s Path to the Little Big Horn. This text investigated the effects of the American Gilded Age on Custer’s world, which made it different from many that explore this historical icon. The research focused heavily on post-Civil War American finance rather than on Custer’s personality or that of his fellow officers. Detailed information about the transcontinental railroad and resulting American progress brought to life how this era influenced the development of the West, including Kansas.

I told a friend I’d read this book and mentioned the term Gilded Age. She promptly asked what that term meant. It came to life via Mark Twain, the famed author who published a satire about the period following 1870 to the new century. His book The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today made fun of social issues of the time. Poking the bear as only he could, Twain prodded American sensibilities for sugarcoating serious concerns with a thin gold covering.

More than a century and a half has passed since those days so we must recollect that while America emerged reunited after the Civil War, it was a country with enormous debt. The nation’s finances were tied to the gold standard so a wobbly economy put a hold a most financial and business advancement. Shrewd businessmen with names such as Gould, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, Stanford, and Vanderbilt are still recognizable today. These enterprising fellows put the gilded in the term by investing heavily in railroads through selling stock to desperate job seekers whose lives depended on Western opportunities.

The impoverished government couldn’t aid the railroads financially, but it had an enormous amount of land to give companies selling bonds to fund track building across a vast continent. That incentive allowed entrepreneurs to either give or sell cheap town lots and farmland to those willing to migrate to the region. Early Kansas benefitted due to these booster promises. Many towns across our state began as barren railroad property, which soon filled with folks expecting to produce goods they could ship East on the same trains that delivered them to their new address.

Towns such as Dodge, Hays, Ellis, Wakeeney, Hill City, Logan, Phillipsburg, and Norton are direct results of Eastern robber barons’ dreams. One of those men left his mark in several places in Kansas. Jay Gould, a New York speculator tied to Boss Tweed of the famous Tammany Hall scandal, took control of the Union Pacific Railroad during the 1873 financial crisis. Making informed and competitive decisions, Gould revamped a failing system that then succeeded because of shipments to and from recently recruited farmers and ranchers.

Because of his impact on the region, Harlan, Kansas, in the North Central part of our state named a then prestigious university in that community Gould College. Today, you can find a plaque that marks this institution’s former locale. In Ellis, Kansas, several local property owners examined their real estate abstracts to find Gould’s signature as the first to transfer railroad property to private possession.

This book about how the railroad and the Gilded Age cost the Sioux the Black Hills and, subsequently, Custer his life aided my understanding of how my ancestors became part of the rush to develop communities across Kansas. Every time I cross metal rails now, I’ll thank those men who were looking out for their own bank accounts and not my relatives’. Their desire to create wealth offered my ancestors an incentive to leave Canada, England, and Russia for these Great Plains.

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