Should we consider Whitney’s efforts a failure? Perhaps not. His work began a new conversation, one in which continent-spanning railroads came to be seen as not only possible in the future of the United States, but an inescapable, inexorable part of that future. The argument Whitney and other promoters made – successfully – was that the bonds of union should be rails of iron, bought, laid down, and worn smooth by Asia’s endless commerce.
Whitney’s vision had more than ideological implications. The first transcontinental railroad built after he withdrew from public life followed his proposed route. And while not every railroad map followed his example in explicitly connecting the United States to the world by rail, these linkages lingered on their edges. For example: a 1900 map of “The Union Pacific System of Railroad and Steamship Lines” (below) highlights the UP line in red – and then runs it right out of San Francisco’s harbor, off the continent and into the Pacific Ocean, connecting it to steam ship lines running to points North, South, and “Asiatic.”
Finally, the traffic that Whitney predicted is still flowing as he imagined it would. Today, the U.S.’s most important trading relationship is with China, and a large proportion of Chinese freight enters the U.S. at West Coast ports before being carried – by rail – to points east, and beyond
Manifestly designed or not, the practical reality of U.S. expansion to the Pacific was first made plausible by Whitney’s abiding belief in the importance of Asian trade to the nation’s political economy. In many ways, our present reality is a product of Asa Whitney’s infrastructural imagination.