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Steam City

Railroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore

Steam City

Railroads, Urban Space, and Corporate Capitalism in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore

Anyone interested in the rise of American corporate capitalism should look to the streets of Baltimore. There, in 1827, citizens launched a bold new venture: a “rail-road” that would link their city with the fertile Ohio River Valley. They dubbed this company the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O), and they conceived of it as a public undertaking—an urban improvement, albeit one that would stretch hundreds of miles beyond the city limits.

Steam City tells the story of corporate capitalism starting from the street and moving outward, looking at how the rise of the railroad altered the fabric of everyday life in the United States. The B&O’s founders believed that their new line would remap American economic geography, but no one imagined that the railroad would also dramatically reshape the spaces of its terminal city. As railroad executives wrangled with city officials over their use of urban space, they formulated new ideas about the boundaries between public good and private profit. Ultimately, they reinvented the B&O as a private enterprise, unmoored to its home city. This bold reconception had implications not only for the people of Baltimore, but for the railroad industry as a whole. As David Schley shows here, privatizing the B&O helped set the stage for the rise of the corporation as a major force in the post-Civil War economy.

​Steam City examines how the birth and spread of the American railroad—which brought rapid communications, fossil fuels, and new modes of corporate organization to the city—changed how people worked, where they lived, even how they crossed the street. As Schley makes clear, we still live with the consequences of this spatial and economic order today.

352 pages | 22 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Historical Studies of Urban America

Economics and Business: Economics--Urban and Regional

Geography: Urban Geography

History: American History, Urban History

Transportation: General


"Recommended. . . Schley's illuminating central argument here is that corporate power rests in a physical landscape that facilitates its goals."


“Schley adopts a fresh and innovative approach... Steam City reflects his assertion 'that corporate power, as we understand it today, rests on a spatial order that took shape in city streets during the first half century of the railroad age.'”

Technolgy and Culture

"Steam City is deeply researched, intellectually ambitious, and lucidly presented. Historians of capitalism and of the city, as well as cultural and historical geographers, will take note. Make no mistake: this is an outstanding and important book."

Tamara Plakins Thornton, University at Buffalo

"Have enormous private corporations ever been accountable to the governments that support them with tax dollars? Tackling this once-again urgent question, Schley traces the lamentable uncoupling of public money and public regulation over the course of the nineteenth century. Steam City is a lucid and learned account of railroad corporations and municipal governance, but the relationship of American democracy and capitalism is truly what’s at stake in this important book."

Seth Rockman, Brown University

"Explores the interconnectedness of the nineteenth century corporation and the growth of the nineteenth century city, providing a street-level perspective on the development of American capitalism through an examination of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad and the city of Baltimore." 

Journal of Economic Literature

Table of Contents

List of Maps, Figures, and Tables


Chapter 1: The Urban Origins of the American Railroad
Chapter 2: Tracks in the Streets
Chapter 3: The Rise and Fall of the B&O Note
Chapter 4: Straight Lines and Crooked Rates
Chapter 5: The Smoking, Puffing Locomotive
Chapter 6: Privatizing the B&O
Chapter 7: The Railroad Unbound and the City Contained
Chapter 8: The Great Strike

Appendix: The Board of Directors during the Stockholder Revolt
Abbreviations in the Notes

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