Friday, May 05, 2023

Schivelbusch: A True Genius of Railway History

Unbeknownst to many of us, Wolfgang Schivelbusch died in Germany in March. I didn't know until this morning, when the New York Times published an obituary. Schivelbusch was what many of us dream of being: an independent scholar. As qualified as any professor, he operated free of institutional constraint, writing the histories he wanted to. It is no exaggeration to say that, were it not for his work, I might not have completed a PhD.

I first encountered Schivelbusch in the first year of my undergrad in a lecture given by David Wootton on the history of time and space as intellectual constructs. Using Schivelbusch, Wootton explained how the construction of the railways in Britain had fundamentally changed how people perceived time and space. The increased velocity of rail travel allowed people to travel further in less time. The result was a shrinking of distance. My mind was blown. 

As I delved deeper into railway history, I bought a used copy of The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, perhaps Schivelbusch's best-known work. I devoured it. It's a truly eclectic book: the chapters don't lead logically from one to the next. Whatever aspect of the railways that Schivelbusch wanted to talk about, he did. He introduced me to the cultural history of rail travel, which helped me to break away from the technical and economic narratives I had been used to. This was how people saw train travel, how they felt train travel, how they loved and feared it. Chapters 3-5, which focus on time and space, are probably more cited than any other work of transportation history (my guess, don't know if this is actually true!). I studied and wrote about Victorian railway travel as an undergrad because of his work. I ultimately fell back into railway history during my MA, albeit from a material culture and memory perspective.  

My PhD also returned to railways, but not in the way that I think Schivelbusch would have expected. Schivelbusch featured twice on my comprehensive examination reading list. The Railway Journey held up well, although I now saw how the second part really did pale compared to those first few critical chapters. Having read much more widely, I also saw how influential he had been on a generation of scholarship. I also had the opportunity to peruse Disenchanted Night: The Industrialization of Light in the Nineteenth Century, which focused on the advent of electricity. This was how I summarized it in my notes:

Nobody makes a book quite like Schivelbusch. It’s easy to read, but so incredibly detailed without being heavy. It makes huge claims without being complicated. As is the case in other Schivelbush work, the first chapter(s) is the crucial bit. The rest sort-of peters out. Also, and especially in the chapter on nightlife, the book could have very easily become a social history talking about the people in the night. Instead, it stays true to its focus on technology. This is important as it shows that effective books must stay on topic.

When it came time for me to write my dissertation, I focused on politics, development, and colonialism. Oddly, Schivelbusch largely rejected the first two themes in his work and he predated the third. While I did cite him (how could I not?), I largely worked around his assessment of railways. But this is how scholarship works: you contribute to a conversation, taking it in different directions and moving it forward. Without Wolfgang Schivelbusch, it is quite likely that I would never have written my contribution to that conversation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Behold! A PhD.

As the title says, I am no longer a historian-in-training. I am now a doctor, and in the Western academic tradition, that is the end of the road. It has been a long journey, but comparatively short compared to the average. I finished my PhD in five years, whereas the average time to completion is somewhere between 6.5 and 8 years for history. There are a number of reasons for this, and I recognize that I have had some advantages not available to many graduate students. I chose to study a topic geographically close to me, making research travel simple. I lucked out when it came to funding (not that it's ever enough, but everything helps). That funding let me take a year off from teaching, giving me uninterrupted time to process research and to write.

I have chosen not to place an embargo on the dissertation. I didn't see the need and I know that some people were eager to read it. You can too! (Be warned, it is very long). A PDF can be downloaded from the University of Toronto website here:

Thursday, November 03, 2022

The end of

In the Internet world, eight years seems like an eternity. Even in the normal world, eight years is quite a long time. In the autumn of 2014, Call of the Northland was published, including a website to host errata and updates. After nearly a decade, I've decided to close down that website. As of today, is no more. Of course, it does live on in the Internet Archive.

So, if you happen to find somewhere on the Interwebs, it won't be me. If you wanted those errata and updates, you can find them here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Ontario Northland's "Every Child Matters" Locomotive

This week, Ontario Northland unveiled a repainted locomotive. GP38-2 #1808 is now bright orange and emblazoned with the phrase "Every Child Matters." The phrase has become the slogan for the commemoration of residential schools across Canada and for the recognition of the damage they did. Orange has become the representative colour through Orange Shirt Day (now the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation), which is held on September 30 every year.

It's not the first time that a railway has chosen to acknowledge residential schools. Last year, Canadian Pacific painted a locomotive orange. Shortly afterwards, CP painted a second locomotive the same shade of orange (or ridiculously close), but with the Hapag-Lloyd logo to promote a logistics partnership. While I felt that this diluted the message of the first locomotive, the idea of a railway acknowledging residential schools would have been unheard of even a decade ago. Several years ago, Canadian National began including its Aboriginal Affairs logo in its standard locomotive paint scheme. However, as I wrote, CN's decision seemed at odds with its corporate policy.

I applaud all of these gestures designed to acknowledge the treatment of Indigenous people in what we now call Canada. However, I wonder whether railway companies realize how deeply ingrained they are in this colonial reality. If they do realize it, will they ever acknowledge it publicly? Railway construction and operation were fundamental to the expansion of Canada and to the ongoing colonial control by the Canadian state. I think there is a sincere desire to improve relations, but I do wonder if companies have realized what better relations might mean. As someone who spent the past five years studying the impact of railway development on Indigenous communities in Northeastern Ontario, I have come to realize just how daunting a challenge moving forward in a good way will be.

While "Every Child Matters" is being used by these companies to represent the entire relationship between railways and Indigenous communities, let's not forget that it is supposed to be rooted in one of the federal government's key Indigenous policies: residential schools. Publicly at least, Ontario Northland has been quiet about its own role in residential schools. I'm sorry to say that my research is also largely quiet on this question. My work was based almost entirely on archival research, and connections between Ontario Northland and the schools are almost non-existent in the archival record. 

However, there is just about enough material to make some very broad observations about Ontario Northland and the schools. Were trains used to transport Indigenous children to residential schools? Yes. Jane Willis's autobiography recounts that this happened, as does the TRC report and the Mushkegowuk Council's Peoples's Inquiry. Did the expansion of the Ontario Northland Railway improve logistics in Northeastern Ontario? Yes, I hope that part is obvious. Did the aforementioned improvements to logistics allow for the expansion of the Horden Hall Residential School at Moose Factory? Yes, correspondence between the federal Department of Indian Affairs and the Church of England says so. Further research, especially in collaboration with local communities, would provide a much clearer answer. This is one of those times when local people, those who lived this, would provide a much better answer than I ever could. As such, my observations should not be the final word on this. Instead, take them as a call for further thought.

Gestures like the ONR's special paint scheme are important. As media coverage has noted, this is only a part of a much larger effort by the railway to foster better relations with First Nations along the line. And this is key! Gestures must be backed up with lasting positive actions. I look forward to seeing what comes next.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

FYI: I am no longer on Twitter

 Bye-bye Twitter!

It’s a cliché right now, people dumping Twitter in righteous indignation at Elon Musk’s purchase of the social network. I’m not happy about the move at all, I think it’s a dangerous concentration of power and influence, but ultimately it was only the catalyst for me leaving the site. I took a long hiatus from Twitter last fall and really didn’t miss it. I was never a productive user and my presence was minimal. Even with carefully curating what I read and followed, it was still too angry. Most of the time, it just left me feeling sad. I'm not really a social media person.

I have now deleted my account. If you find a Thomas Blampied on Twitter, it’s not me. If you find a ProBonoHistory on Twitter, it’s not me. My website isn’t going anywhere and those of you who want to get in touch can through it.