Steam CityRailroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore

Steam CityRailroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore

David Schley

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780226720258

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Historians have identified nineteenth-century railroads as both the engines of and models for industrial, corporate capitalism, but at the dawn of the railroad age, a very different vision prevailed. The people who founded the first American railroads in the 1820s and 1830s conceived of them as urban improvements, publicly funded instruments that cities could use to secure hinterlands. This book focuses on the first railroad corporation in the United States, the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O), in order to understand how this ambitious urban project became a modern capitalist enterprise. It argues that struggles over the design and use of urban space played a crucial role in this process. The privatization of the B&O began in the streets, as the company’s executives sought to run their traffic unfettered through public space. In Baltimore, and many other American cities as well, visions of the private corporation—a profit-maximizing institution unmoored by obligations to an urban public—came packaged with visions of the capitalist city—a place for the unimpeded circulation of goods and capital. Drawing on printed materials, municipal archives, and corporate records, this book shows that the rise of the industrial metropolis and the advent of the railroad were structurally intertwined: the development of capitalist institutions and ideologies depended on the production of new types of urban space. The rise of corporate capitalism, thus, hinged on the creation of a new spatial order in places like Baltimore.