The practice of regarding railways as purely private property has, in the public mind, greatly obscured the perception of their essentially public character, and the right to equality in their enjoyment. The enormous benefit they have conferred upon the people of this country, the consciousness that they have largely made the country what it is, prevent us from considering sufficiently the evils of an unfair and unequal division of those benefits. Yet there is no instrumentality of human industry whose equal enjoyment is more essential to the general welfare. All the great and small interests of modern life are vitally concerned in this. The cost of railway service is a far greater direct tax upon industry than the entire expense of government, as is seen in the fact that the gross earnings of the railroads of the United States for 1892 were nearly a billion and a quarter dollars. The very existence of cities depends upon transportation, of which the railroad is the principal vehicle. It links the world together, abolishes at once national boundaries and national prejudices, and will produce universal brotherhood if anything can. It is the great inheritance of the race, — a birthright long withheld, and only lately fully enjoyed. It has utterly revolutionized all the conditions of human life, transformed the world, and set before mankind a series of lessons as gigantic, as novel, as perplexing, and as imperatively demanding study and solution as those which faced primeval man when he confronted nature with bare hands.
When this marvelous agency came into perfect use, in the present century, in the form of steam railways in this country, its boundless utility was but dimly perceived by the people. They knew but little how to direct its growth. They had, as a nation, their heads and hands full of the problems of national existence, the first trial of the experiment of free self-government on a large scale; and it was only natural that they permitted a set of clever adventurers to get possession of this Aladdin’s lamp, and with it the genii who are its slaves. In other countries, a long-established and powerful central government took measures looking to the orderly and systematic development of the railway, and in France, for example, the subsequent growth has been almost entirely on the lines at first laid down. Provision was everywhere made for the future purchase of the railways by the government, and a careful supervision was exercised to prevent unnecessary lines becoming a perpetual tax on the resources of the people, as well as the wild and violent fluctuations in charges which have been such an intolerable burden upon our industries. But in America almost the same freedom was allowed to lay down railways as to engage in any other kind of business, and no effectual check upon the construction of useless lines was ever attempted. The business of transportation over these new lines was regarded by railway men, if not by the public, as purely a private money-making business, to be regulated by self-interest, and nothing else. This magnificent engine of civilization, therefore, which should have been jealously guarded for the common and equal enjoyment of all the people, passed even from its infancy into the control of private corporations.