Henry David Thoreau wasn’t fond of technology, preferring instead a life of quiet contemplation—blackberries and swallows, then, above train cars and rails. But, an embodiment of contradictions, Thoreau also was fascinated by engineering and science.
The writer who retreated to a ten- by fifteen-foot cabin on Walden Pond from 1845 to 1847 was skeptical of the Industrial Revolution, which was in full force at that time. He could hear, about a third of a mile from his cabin, a train rattling over its tracks.
He thought it better to walk than to ride on the train, and he was especially worried about the workers needed to build the tracks. A push for the transcontinental railroad project was gathering steam in Congress and in the newspapers. Hundreds of workers had already died from disease and accidents while building America’s rail system. “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us,” Thoreau wrote in Walden.
But in this poem, while he’s not curious about seeing the end of the line, he’s also not condemning the railroad. The train fits into the landscape of America, along with the birds and the berries. “It is, I think, arguable that contradiction is the peculiarly American genius,” wrote literary critic Harold Bloom in a book about Thoreau.
Whether Thoreau loved the train or not, the railroad was undeniably vital to the development of Ellicott’s Mills. Construction on the B&O line began on July 4, 1828. A frail, 90-year-old Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who lived at Doughoregan, a plantation situated a few miles down Frederick Road from Ellicott’s Mills, laid the cornerstone at the Mount Clare Station. A horse pulled the first cars 13 miles from Baltimore across the Patapsco River.
Thoreau would approve of the horse, at least.
What’s the Railroad to Me?
by Henry David Thoreau
What’s the railroad to me?
I never go to see
Where it ends.
It fills a few hollows,
And makes banks for the swallows,
It sets the sand a-blowing,
And the blackberries a-growing.
“What’s the Railroad to Me?” was published in 1854. This poem is in the public domain.