Collison Course: Rural Track Crossing Habits and the Railroad in the United States, 1915-32

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Technology and Culture


Mobility scholars tend to portray people on the move as using various strategies to outmaneuver the governments or companies aiming to control them. This article shows that when some travelers prioritized convenience on their daily trips, their shortcuts and hacks led to unexpected run-ins with dangerous machinery. In early 1900s rural America, pedestrians and motorists used railroad tracks carelessly and intentionally—a chaotic combination epitomizing the hustle and bustle of everyday life. When those travelers died in train collisions, their survivors sued railroad companies, thus pitting the victims' risky behavior against companies' powerful legal defense. Two trials from Pennsylvania in 1915 and 1932 contrast the adversaries' sense of railroad space, presenting the landscape's impact on everyday movements that people take for granted. The case studies will push historians to pay more attention to the gray zone of popular, yet illegal, behaviors that bring people into contact with technology.