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How to describe and Analyze an Article

What story/figure/event most impressed you from this unit’s lessons? Please describe what specifically you remember about the item that you selected:

My Selected Story:

The Railroad Era: Economic Panics, Growth, and the Rise of Oligarchy


In 1830, some American businessmen called for a transcontinental railroad “to shrink the continent and change the whole world.” Not until 1862, as the U.S. fought its Civil War to determine the nation’s character, did Congress authorize the venture. By 1869, after a long, bitter and often terrifying struggle against indigenous peoples’ resistance, brutal weather, political corruption and other lawlessness, the idea took its shape as reality. This path did far more than connect the eastern and western shores of the North American continent. It opened a gateway to vast demographic and economic expansion that would make America the world’s industrial giant.


Its impact on California cannot be overstated. Thousands of new towns such as Colton, CA, named for railway executive David Colton, sprung up near railway lines. These tracks were, and remain to this day, an active source of local employment and wealth. During the 1880s and 1890s, shipping on rails the valuable citrus crop helped make San Bernardino and Riverside CA some of the wealthiest areas (per capita) in the entire nation. Railways also joined the state internally as seaside regions became joined to inland lands. This sort of connection allowed people to enjoy California’s diverse weather and topography. For example, many San Bernardino elite took advantage of the new train route connecting them to coastal Oceanside, CA. Newspapers reported Sam Bernardino’s elite arrived in some numbers and turned the town into what one writer observed was their summer playground. Of course, modern San Bernardino residents, of all economic means, can still visit Oceanside’s beaches. A weekend day pass is ten dollars and travelers will rise along the same path that was laid out during the prior century.


The question of who built the rails appeared remains a source of great scholarly interest. In 1864, the first Chinese workers were hired to lay the foundations. By 1865, thousands more worked the western portion of transcontinental railroad. The roadbed was blasted out of the solid rock mountainside by lowering Chinese workers on ropes down the cliff’s face. These men drilled and packed black power charges in the rock, lit the fuses, and retreated up the ropes before the explosions detonated. Despite this skill and contribution, ethno-racial bigotry harassed Chinese workers. When Leland Stanford was elected governor of California in 1862, he promised in his inaugural address to protect the state from “the dregs of Asia.” Stanford, however, soon changed his tune. He faced pressure from railway executives that saw in the Chinese labor an immediate need. In 1868, there were 12,000 Chinese workers employed by the Central Pacific Railways. That comprised at least 80% of their workforce. “Wherever we put them, we found them good,” one senior executive recalled. “We found that when we were in a hurry for a job of work, it was better to put Chinese on it at once.”


After the railways’ completion, however, Chinese workers found they were unwelcomed in California. Political groups such as Denis Kearney’s Workingmen’s Party of California coined such slogans as “The Chinese Must Go!” They attracted wide support among people living in the state and also reflected a wider xenophobia taking hold across the nation. In 1882, Congress passed (and President Chester Arthur signed) the Chinese Exclusion Act. This law was the first significant decree restricting immigration into the U.S. for an ethnic group. It also was the first in a series of legislative, executive, and judicial acts taken during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that modern onlookers consider racist. The Chinese Exclusion Act was followed by official bureaucratic implementation that excluded or limited immigration by Japanese, Filipinos, and the whole range of peoples from Asian nations. As the state (and nation) moved toward the 20th Century, the lines of social and political power were drawn clearly. California’s history was re-written from that of a land that had sustained people for hundreds of years to that of a land that now-positioned to come out from its infancy and develop.


The best example of this budding optimism, what scholars term a whiggish belief in progress and improvement, is California’s schools, colleges, and universities. In 1879, the state had only sixteen high schools to serve the entire land. However, the seeds for growth had been planted. The University of California, founded ten years earlier, attracted some top-level scholars to its campuses. Private gifts from many of the state’s wealthy citizens added to the state’s educational fortunes. The publisher William Randolph Hearst was a large donor; so, too, was Leland Stanford. Religious denominations also played a role in developing the state’s educational system. Methodists founded the University of Southern California in 1879; Presbyterians established Occidental College in 1887; Quakers gifted Whittier College 1901; and that same decade Baptists raised the University of Redlands. Enrollment in these institutions was socially uneven as non-whites had miniscule access to private learning. Women, also, faced barriers. In 1899, a Stanford University manager issued an admissions edict stating, “I mean literally never in the future history of Leland Stanford Junior University can the number of female students at any one time exceed five hundred.”


Public colleges, however, proved more welcoming to students of various ethnic and gender groups. They began cropping up during the early 20th century. An election to establish the San Bernardino Valley Union Junior College District took place on March 26, 1926. The issue carried easily A few months later,leaders selected a site for the college, on the east side of Mt. Vernon Avenue between the downtown areas of San Bernardino and Colton. This public college exists today as San Bernardino Valley College.


From its start, SBVC was co-educational and multi-ethnic. Its initial faculty had eleven men and six women. During its first year as instruction, nearly 300 students enrolled in more than fifty course offerings. A number of clubs formed. They reflected the campus’s diversity and included La Sociadad Hispanica, the Indian Paint Brush (Art), and Women’s Athletic Association. This commitment to promoting higher learning in California reflected the era’s larger Progressive attitude. The hope held by many was that developing one’s intellectual and social skills would help improve society.


One major obstacle to this noble vision, however, was the corruption and inequality that separated the state’s elite above the rest of the population. The so-called Colton Letters illustrate this inequity. As noted earlier, Colton was a wealthy railroad executive who reflected the great power known to railroad men and their families. In 1878, writers and other social commentators uncovered a series of his private letters. These documents spelled out in fine-grained details the ways in which he (and others) bought influence among lawmakers in the state’s capitol. In one letter, a colleague wrote, “It costs money to fix things,” alluding to the need for bribes. In still another letter, he observed, “the boys are very hungry and it will cost us a considerable amount.”


Efforts to reform this insider arrangement took some form across the state. Newton Booth won election as state’s governor on an anti-monopolist agenda. Other changes, such as the rise of the secret, rather than slate, ballot, aimed at providing ordinary people more power. However, as the new century opened, the fault lines between the “haves” and the “have nots” remained visible in California. This was something the American author Mark Twain noted during his travels to the state during the 1860s while writing his novel Roughing It. It was something that informed his later characterization of the nation’s so-called Gilded Era. As the new 20th century began, tensions arising from these discontents lay raw and smoldering in California. It remained unknown exactly how, if at all, the impulses of modernity would widen these fissures.




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