The railroad rides upon us, the sleepers (Walden 60)

“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad?  Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Where I lived and What I Lived For,” Walden

Thoreau is playing with the word “sleeper,” which referred to the wooden ties on which the rails were laid. He paints a disturbing picture of each sleeper as a man, his life expended in the backbreaking labor of railroad construction, and without the time or energy to awaken in the sense that Henry described in the previous pages. It is not so much a criticism of technology as a plea for economic justice.

Remains of the Rock Island Railroad grade, Lincoln, Nebraska.

Remains of the Rock Island Railroad grade, Lincoln, Nebraska. A few ties (“sleepers”) are easier to see in winter.

The railroad had come to Concord just a few years before Henry moved to Walden Pond. A thousand Irish workers earned 50 to 60 cents for a 16-hour day of labor. Even by the standards of the time that was a poor wage (the early 1840s were a time of economic depression in America), and the work could use a man up. Henry looked at the Industrial Revolution and asked, Why? From his perspective the railroad brought advantage to some and great profit to a few, but it was built on the misery of desperate workers who had few other options. It looked as if people existed to serve industry and not the other way around.

Most of us are a lot better off than 1840s railroad construction workers, but to some extent the ‘railroad’ (using the term to stand for the economic system as a whole) still rides upon us, and not we upon it.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


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