Friday, March 25, 2011

In Progress: Nature's Metropolis, or: I finally understand the plot of Trading Places


First of all, William Cronon, the author of Nature's Metropolis is in the news. He lives in Wisconsin and is apparently being investigated by that crazy union-busting governor of Wisconsin for helping organize the recent marches. WTF, America? By the way, Cronon summarizes the whole story here. Let it just be said that I'm starting to love this guy, and not just because of his super-interesting book.

Nature's Metropolis got off to a bit of a slow start for me when the author spent a lot of time outlining his thesis (I think the book was his dissertation) about the interdependence of a city and it's rural areas, or hinterlands. Hinterlands is a word he uses often, and I think I like it. In fact, I'm going to start using in when talking about the rest of Illinois instead of using the more common word, "downstate." There's about 12 million people in Illinois, and the Chicago metro area is about 9 million of those people.

The book takes off once he gets to the meat of his argument, and he starts with the railroads. Having read a bunch of Civil War history this year, some of this felt like a rehash in terms of the importance of railroads. However, I did also learn that it was railroad operators who standardized time and created time zones, and only later were they officially adopted by the government.

I also learned how and why Chicago became the center of the railroad universe. Basically, and this is the briefest of explanations, there were Eastern railroads and Western railroads. The Eastern ones connected Chicago and New York in a more or less straight line and moved large shipments of grain, goods, and other commodities from one metropolis to another without stopping. Meanwhile, the western railroads spread out in a fan shape from Chicago to farms, towns, and villages throughout the western US. These lines stopped frequently and picked up local shipments of grain and cargo and were taken to Chicago to sell. Those commodities were then packaged together with like things and shipped to New York, either by rail or via the Great Lakes. It was to everyone's advantage to have a central city where these 2 types of commodities met, and that was Chicago.

I am in no way doing this justice. The railroad stuff is super interesting not only because of how they worked and were built, but also what it took economically to run one.

Grain Elevators
The grain elevator thing is not only interesting, but I also now finally understand the plot of the movie Trading Places. Ah, Non-Fiction!

Before the railroads, farmers would package their grain into sacks and they, individually or with the help of a middle man, had to get the grain to market. But small sacks of grain are heavy and difficult to move. Once sold in big city like Chicago, St. Louis, or New Orleans, it took hundreds of men hundreds of hours of physical labor to move the individual sacks of grain onto ships bound for even larger markets, like New York.

However, the railroads completely and forever changed the packaging and distribution of grain. First of all, railroads could carry far more grain than the average wagon or raft. The city of Chicago was bursting at the seams with grain, they literally couldn't move it onto ships and get it out of town fast enough. The introduction of a mechanized grain elevator changed all of that. Now, grain was unsacked and combined with other farmer's grain and moved up huge freight elevators, weighed into bushels, and sold in huge lots. After someone purchased the grain, it was released out the bottom--gravity did all the work instead of people.

However, this led to some startling innovations in how grain was purchased and sold. It used to be that a farmer's grain was "tested" on the spot and then a buyer would offer a price for it. But the elevators mixed all of the grain together. To solve this problem, the Chicago Board of Trade was founded. The Board of Trade created different measure of grain quality (wheat 1 was better than wheat 2, etc). Now, a farmer could sell his wheat to the grain elevator and get a receipt which allowed him to get the same quality of wheat back out of the elevator when he wanted to sell it. It wasn't *his* grain, but it was the same quality. This was so reliable that farmers could sell the receipts themselves to buyers without the grain ever changing hands.

I'm afraid I'm making this sound boring, but it was really interesting. The book then goes on to explain how the futures market works (the plot of Trading Places hinges on a scheme to corner the orange market). Alas, that is all so complicated that I doubt I could ever explain it. However, I am quite enjoying this book. Next up is a chapter about lumber, which I fear will be boring, but after that are the chapters on the stockyards.


PS The flickr photo of the train track is from swanksalot, and of the grain elevator is from gail des jardin.


  1. Not boring at all! This is really interesting... I enjoy reading books vicariously through you. :)

  2. I was completely wrong. I'm reading the lumber section and it's just as interesting as the previous chapters. I know now what a logjam is!