Abstract: Grassroots Rebels: Municipal Power and Railroad Regulation in La Crosse, Wisconsin, 1883-1900

Eric J. Morser


Historians typically depict Gilded Age railroad regulation as a story of corporate executives manipulating politicians and political institutions to increase their profits and create economic stability in their industry at the expense of common people. This paper argues that this conventional view is flawed because it focuses too much attention on the failure of federal and state legislatures, courts, and commissions to regulate railroads and does not consider whether Americans may have used municipal power to rein in railroads during the nineteenth century. Taking La Crosse as a case study, the paper demonstrates that small cities had the potential to enact robust programs of railroad regulation between 1883 and 1900. During this period, La Crosse's common council passed ordinances that gave railroads the privilege to enter and expand their operations in the city, but that also regulated them so that they would act in the community's broader interest. Furthermore, the council continued to enforce these laws after 1883. As a result, railroad regulation was a fact of life in the city at the end of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, this hidden history of successful railroad regulation in La Crosse between 1883 and 1900 suggests that municipal governments may have played a far more significant role in defining the contours of late nineteenth-century American economic development than scholars have previously believed.

BEH On-Line Paper