Date of Award

December 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Jeffrey Sommers

Committee Members

Anika Wilson, Marcus Filippello, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith


Atlantic World, Development, Imperialism, Infrastructure, Railroads, Slavery


As was intended, the construction of railways transformed the landscape and societies of the Atlantic World. Great fortunes and forces emerged in the directions of the tracks, sufficient to create structures of economy and organize communities in ways that persisted long after a railway’s use had diminished. In this dissertation, the author argues that the connections and reorganization effected by railway construction created new economic paths in the American South, Panama, and Gold Coast West Africa; the transformations were marked by struggles for power along racial lines, enslavement and coercion in labor, and the interchange between communities and their existing markets and a largely foreign, imperial order. Using sources from African Americans, Afro-Caribbean, and West Africans who comprised the bulk of the labor, as well as the communities where the railways were constructed, the author combines these with geographical and statistical data to portray an environment where whole societies were in flux. While the African Americans in the South experienced a retrenchment of racism in the form of segregation – often following railroad tracks – Afro-Caribbean laborers dug a Panamanian thoroughfare that bolstered European trade, and West Africans laid the tracks for gold and cocoa to the Atlantic Coast. The author concludes that, in addition to the power and persistence conferred by railways, they grant us the opportunity to realize the importance of connections created by communities, and how they were affected by the tracks that ran through them or passed them by. Connections can also provide a refreshing focus in historical methodology; in their persistence, how they are readily revealed by a multitude of sources, and how they amply represent human movement and interaction rather than typical historical emphasis on spatial entities provides a template for exploring reflexive, illustrative approaches to history.