Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 23.djvu/304

This page has been validated.

sighted men of capital and public spirit saw something of what railroads were to be, and soon the iron way began to connect the great cities of the Atlantic together, and then these with the interior of the New England and Middle States, until at last the continent has been belted, and the distant mining-camps of the Rocky Mountains, and the broad stretches of the Californian and Texan plains, are directly connected with every city and town in the country. A single life covers the entire period which separates the time when stage-coaching and wagoning were the methods of transportation, from to-day, when railroads loom up in capital and centralized control as the most important element of American commerce.

The benefits derived from the railroads have been so great as to have virtually created the population and wealth of some of the wide Western States and Territories. Railroads have opened up homes for millions sent across the sea from overcrowded Europe, have cheapened food, clothing, and shelter, have practically broken down State and sectional lines, and by interfusion of capital and population have done more to weld the Union together than any other influence. The locomotive has proved a giant indeed, capable of bearing heavy burdens, and accomplishing splendid results; yet of late railroad corporations have shown a disposition to abuse their strength for public oppression, and the railroad problem is, how this tendency may be best overcome.

While on all hands the indebtedness of the community to railroad enterprise is gladly acknowledged, and while the average return on railroad investments throughout the country is but three per cent, and the charges generally are lower than elsewhere in the world, yet the complaints made against some of the leading lines are so serious as to have given rise to one of the angriest discussions of the time.

The chief complaints, of course, have been made against the lucrative roads, those which run through thickly-settled regions, like the New York Central; and against lines which, like the Central Pacific, are monopolies pure and simple. The complaints are of exorbitant charges, of discrimination in favor of individuals, firms, and localities; that the railroad companies lend themselves to the aggrandizement of monopolies such as the Standard Oil Company, and of minor subsidiary organizations, car, bridge, express, stock-yard, and elevating companies which absorb parasitically profits which should belong to the railway shareholders, and which, if rightfully appropriated, would tend to relieve the burdens borne by the general public. The complainants furthermore aver that the railroad companies make use of their influence, as employers of large bodies of voters, to corrupt Legislatures and courts that they may remain unpunished in committing acts of fraud and rapacity, and defeat attempts by the State to exert the control which the highest authorities declare to be within its rightful powers.

To take up these complaints somewhat in detail—and beginning with that of exorbitant charges—there was provision made in most of