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The Filth of Progress

Immigrants, Americans, and the Building of Canals and Railroads in the West

Ryan Dearinger (Author)


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The Filth of Progress explores the untold side of a well-known American story. For more than a century, accounts of progress in the West foregrounded the technological feats performed while canals and railroads were built and lionized the capitalists who financed the projects. This book salvages stories often omitted from the triumphant narrative of progress by focusing on the suffering and survival of the workers who were treated as outsiders. Ryan Dearinger examines the moving frontiers of canal and railroad construction workers in the tumultuous years of American expansion, from the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825 to the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869. He tells the story of the immigrants and Americans—the Irish, Chinese, Mormons, and native-born citizens—whose labor created the West’s infrastructure and turned the nation’s dreams of a continental empire into a reality. Dearinger reveals that canals and railroads were not static monuments to progress but moving spaces of conflict and contestation.
  List of IllustrationsAcknowledgments 
 1 • “Bind the Republic Together”: Canals, Railroads, and the Paradox of American Progress 
 2 • “A Wretched and Miserable Condition”: Irish Ditchdiggers, the Triumph of Progress, and the Contest of Canal Communities in the Hoosier State 
 3 • “Abuse of the Labour and Lives of Men”: Irish Construction Workers and the Violence of Progress on the Illinois Transportation Frontier 
 4 • “Hell (and Heaven) on Wheels”: Mormons, Immigrants, and the Reconstruction of American Progress and Masculinity on the Transcontinental Railroad
 5 • “The Greatest Monument of Human Labor”: Chinese Immigrants, the Landscape of Progress, and the Work of Building and Celebrating the Transcontinental Railroad
 6 • End-of-Track: Reflections on the History of Immigrant Labor and American Progress 
 Notes BibliographyIndex  
Ryan Dearinger is Associate Professor of History at Eastern Oregon University.
"Despite navigating such huge geographical and cultural boundaries, The Filth of Progress is able to present a coherent history, which hardly veers off the main tracks of its arguments... an instant classic." —Oregon Historical Quarterly
"The Filth of Progress provides fresh insight into the United States' 19th-century infrastrastructure projects by illuminating their 'dark underbelly' . . . . Dearinger's success and originality lie in his comparative framework, which examines how Irish, Chinese, and Mormon and other native-born workers struggled for identity. . . . An excellent analysis."—Pacific Northwest Quarterly
"Dearinger has added a thoughtful and well-researched contribution to this genre of scholarship."—Labour/Le Travail
"The Filth of Progress persuasively outlines the dark underbelly of the much-celebrated 'progress' that transportation improvements wrought between the 1820s and 1870s. Dearinger skillfully brings together the histories of Irish immigrants, Mormons, and Chinese workers. This compact, vividly written book will be of benefit to students and scholars of U.S. labor history, U.S. immigration history, and the history of the American West."—Thomas G. Andrews, Associate Professor of History at the University of Colorado and author of Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War and Coyote Valley: Deep History in the High Rockies

"The Filth of Progress unmasks the strangely neglected work and self-advocacy of immigrant and Mormon transportation workers in the building of the American West. Dearinger’s clear and polished prose reveals the commonalties and differences in how diverse workers tried to better their lives and conditions. This book will appeal to western historians, cultural historians of nineteenth-century American 'improvement' and 'progress,' labor historians, and historians of immigration."—Katherine Benton-Cohen, Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University and author of Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands

"Just twenty years ago Peter Way introduced American historians to the harrowing lives of the 'navvies' working on New York’s Erie Canal. Now Ryan Dearinger offers a rich, new, up-to-date study of the hard-working armies of laborers who dug the canals and spiked the rails that eventually knit together a transcontinental United States. The Filth of Progress deftly links the cultural enthusiasm for technology and development with the enormous suffering wrung from the hands and backs of thousands of marginalized persons from the opening of the Erie through the celebratory Golden Spike nearly half a century later. Irish immigrants, Mormons, and contract Chinese laborers—each group held in some degree of contempt by 'free' and 'white' Americans—greased the skids of progress with their sweat and blood. Familiar racial and ethnic hostilities, rank exploitation, and shameless manipulations ornament the story; but lest we forgive the principles for the 'standards of the day,' Dearinger displays one after another the outrageous fictions concocted to fix blame on the victims after the fact. Americans not only did not build their greatest achievement themselves, they lied aggressively to rob those who did of any scrap of credit or dignity. Not an uplifting story, Dearinger’s account helps to balance scales too long tipped in the direction of bloodless triumph and Yankee ingenuity. Read ’em, and weep."—John Lauritz Larson, Professor of History at Purdue University and author of The Market Revolution in America: Liberty, Ambition, and the Eclipse of the Common Good

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