Abstract: We'll be on time or we're leaving the rails: Railroad Speed and the Perils of the New South

Scott Huffard


In the decades after the Civil War, the speed and timeliness of railroads took on heightened cultural importance in the American South, as the regional railroad network expanded and consolidated. For the men behind the New South movement—northern investors, tourists, and southern boosters—faster railroads put the war in the past, increased enjoyment of travelers, and encouraged development of resources. Railroad speed was for these men a marker of southern progress, but it also served as a reminder of how far the South still had to go. The spread of fast limited express trains showed how speed could leave some towns behind, and on the South's shaky railroad network—the most dangerous in the nation—observers often blamed excessive rates of speed for derailments and collisions. The controversial nature of speed can be seen not only in the immediate aftermath of wrecks, but also in the memory of these wrecks. In train wreck ballads like "The Wreck of the Old 97," and the saga of Casey Jones, the need to make up lost time went down in memory as the cause of the wrecks, making these ballads an apt metaphor for the experience of southern railroading in these years.