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Friday, June 1, 1990

Taking the Train to Metamora

Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

For a few dollars, one can ride a train from Connersville to Metamora, in eastern Indiana. The ride is worth taking not just because it is a chance to ride a train (which in America is now difficult to do), and not just because it is a chance to ride aboard a train pulled by a steam locomotive (which, as any train buff can tell you, is the ultimate experience in travel), but because of what the ride can teach you about economics, politics, and the way the two combine to shape the world around us.

Not long ago I took my family on the train to Metamora. Shortly after we pulled out of Connersville, I noticed the faint outline of the now-defunct Whitewater Valley Canal running parallel to the railroad track. There was no sign of water in this canal; there was only a ditch with slumping banks and with rather sizable trees growing from the bottom. (The presence of these trees made it almost impossible to visualize barges ever using the canal.) From time to time, we passed the crumbling remains of canal locks.

It was only when I looked out the other side of the train that I realized that besides taking a train trip, I was traveling over a particularly interesting piece of the economic landscape. For on the other side of the train was a modern highway, being used by a variety of vehicles, including cars that had stopped to watch the steam locomotive go by. There, within the space of a few hundred feet, was a history of modern transportation: a canal, paralleled by a railway, which in turn was paralleled by a highway.

I examined the scene in much the same way as a geologist might examine a road cut (where engineers have cut through a hill in order to lay a road bed). To a geologist, a road cut offers valuable clues to the geological history of a region because it reveals the successive layers of sediment that were laid down by ancient oceans. Where the untrained eye sees a change in the color or texture of the strata, the geologist sees evidence of the rise of a new form of life, of changes in climate in years gone by, or of volcanic eruptions.

The canal, railroad track, and highway, lying side by side, were the economic equivalent of geological strata, but instead of revealing geological epochs, this economic landscape revealed successive revolutions in the technology of transportation, as well as revealing—to the trained eye—evidence of changes in the political climate in years gone by.

The juxtaposition of canal and rail and highway was also evidence of how dramatically the economic landscape can change. The people who built the canal probably didn’t imagine that a technology would arise to make it obsolete, and the people who built the rails probably did so confident in the belief that theirs was the ultimate form of transportation.

By what, I wondered, will the highway be replaced? The obvious answer is that it will never be replaced, but this is what the canal- and railroad-builders thought. They were mistaken. Is there any reason to think that we are not likewise mistaken in thinking, as we often do, that we have reached the end-point in economic evolution?

Indeed, it is entirely conceivable that my children will tell their grandchildren about the old days when people used to ride around in cars. My great-grandchildren will listen wide-eyed and comment that things must have been difficult before they invented—I would like to be able to finish this sentence, but I don’t know how to do so.

My great-grandchildren will most likely pity me for having to live without—again, I do not know what yet-to- be-invented something they will hold to be essential if one is to enjoy life. And why shouldn’t they pity me? I pity my great-grandparents for having had to live without television and antibiotics and jet airplanes. Of course, I don’t feel like a person worthy of pity; I don’t feel like I’mmissing anything, and I don’t suppose my great- grandparents did either.

Only Change Is Certain

When it comes to predicting the economic landscape decades hence, only one thing is sure: It will be radically different—almost unimaginably dif-ferent-from that of today. Generally, if there were someone who could tell us the future, we would not believe him. We instead prefer to believe those who tell us, in reassuring tones, that tomorrow will be like today, even though such people are almost never right.

The juxtaposition of canal and rail and highway also raises a number of questions: How does a canal or railroad come into existence? How does it die? Did this particular canal and railroad die natural deaths, or were they, in effect, murdered? And if they were murdered, who was the murderer?

As it turns out, the history of the Whitewater Canal* is intertwined with the history of Indiana itself, and it is a history that demonstrates the extent to which politics can shape the economic landscape.

* In what follows, I am relying on William E. Wilson’s history of the canal, as related in his lndiana: A History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966).

When Congress admitted Indiana to the Union, it allowed a certain portion of the funds from the sale of public lands to be used for developing transportation within Indiana. There were those, including Governor James Ray, who saw canals as a dying technology and favored instead construction of railroads. In the end, though, the state set off on a binge of canal and railroad construction, authorized by the Mammoth Internal Improvement Bill of 1836, and funded both by Federal money and by $10 million borrowed by the state of Indiana. The Whitewater Canal was one of the projects thus financed.

The problem was that young Indiana was not ready to service the debt necessary to cover these appropriations: by 1839 the state was bankrupt. In the end, the state came up with a solution to the debt problem that was “just short of repudiation.” The state got out of the canal-building business, and private enterprise finished the job that the State of Indiana had begun. By 1846, the Whitewater Canal connected Lawrenceburg with Cambridge City; the section of the canal between Con-nersville and Metamora is included in this stretch.

Once built, the Whitewater Canal’s days of usefulness were numbered. By 1865 the Whitewater Valley Railroad had built the line that paralleled the canal (the line that the train to Metamora takes), and the canal was rendered superfluous. It wasn’t long, however, before the Whitewater Valley Railroad itself fell on hard times. By 1877, it was bankrupt.

The Whitewater Valley Railroad recovered from this setback, but it ultimately suffered the fate of the canal: In this century, it ceased to be a commercially viable operation. What killed it? Again, this is a complex question. A case can be made, though, that in the same way that the railroad killed the canal by paralleling it, the modern highway—more precisely, the system of modern highways—killed the railroad. Furthermore, a case can be made—and many have made it—that the railroads died not because they are technologically obsolete (one. need only look at Europe or Japan to realize as much) but because the government decided to nourish their competitor, the highway system.

In the early 1970s, the not-for-profit Whitewater Valley Railroad Company revived the Connersville-to-Metamora route as a train for tourists, and in 1984 the company purchased from Penn Central the track between Connersville and Metamora. Thus it was that I found it possible to take the train to Metamora.

On arriving in Metamora I purchased some railroad paraphernalia and took my family for a snack. The restaurant that looked the most promising was located in the basement of an old bank building. The problem was that the place seemed full. We were about to leave when a waiter came up and asked whether we would mind sitting “in the vault.” I wasn’t sure what he meant, but we followed him and soon found ourselves inside a long and narrow concrete bank vault. The place was barely big enough for a table and had a bit of an echo, but was nevertheless a treat. (I did experience some anxiety about accidentally being locked in—who, after all these years, would know the combination?—but my fears were unfounded.) No doubt those who built the vault would be as surprised to learn of the ultimate fate of their works, as would those who built the canal, those who built the railroad, or as we will be, if we are lucky enough to be around decades hence.

  • Professor Irvine teaches philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.