Railroads: ‘The Octopus’ & Captive Shippers in 1901 & 2013


Pandora, Ohio: Grain Elevator 5/26/10

          Few books read once in adolescence made as permanent an impression on me as Frank Norris’s novel, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901).  Wheat farmers squeezed into financial ruin by a railroad’s ability to extract monopoly pricing for haulage might not seem a riveting read.  But it is.

          The author of The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair, spoke for me when he wrote, ‘Frank Norris had a great influence upon me because I read The Octopus when I was young and knew very little about what was happening in America. He showed me a new world….’

           In the book’s conclusion, Norris wrote:

           Yes, the Railroad had prevailed.  The ranches had been seized in the tentacles of the octopus; the iniquitous burden of extortionate freight rates had been imposed like a yoke of iron.  The monster had killed Haran….  It had beggared Magnus and had driven him to a state of semi-insanity after he had wrecked his honour….  It had enticed Lyman into its toils…, corrupting him and poisoning him beyond redemption….  It had cast forth Mrs. Hooven to starve to death….  It had driven Minna to prostitution….[1]

 At 15 I didn’t know Norris presented reality, but I believed he did.  Time proved I was right.

           Today’s Politico Morning Transportation had this item which brought The Octopus to mind:

CAPTIVE SHIPPERS: With one of their most ardent champions heading out of office soon, bulk shippers are making a fresh push for lawmakers to overhaul the Surface Transportation Board that settles disputes over freight rail pricing. The clock is ticking down to the moment when Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller will retire, taking his advocacy for shippers’ causes with him. That leaves no time to waste for so-called “captive shippers,” companies served by a single railroad that say they’re the victims of monopolistic practices by an industry almost entirely controlled by four railroads.

           Politico’s note makes Norris’s final paragraph, published 112 years ago, seem horribly wrong.

           Falseness dies; injustice and oppression in the end … fade and vanish away.  Greed, cruelty, selfishness, and inhumanity are short-lived; the individual suffers, but the race goes on….  The larger view always and through all shams, all wickedness, discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for good.[2]

 Where the octopuses and bulk shippers, such as wheat farmers, are concerned, the day that Truth prevails seems little closer than it was in 1901.



           1.  Frank Norris, The Octopus: A Story of California [1901] in Frank Norris: Novels & Essays (Library of America, 1986), pp. 1096-97.  Much as I love the Library of America, and I do, I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they omitted The Pit, the sequel to The Octopus from this anthology.

           2.  Id., pp 1097-98.


  1. Ralph Meima said:

    Wow. The Octopus is now on my short list. This reminds me of another Octopus: the “health care” industry, which is currently managing to extract an extra 8% of US GDP compared to the OECD average without making the nation any healthier. Indeed, this industry as it currently operates has no incentive in a healthier nation – a prime example of moral hazard. No wonder its tentacles cling so firmly to the status quo.
    Keep up the great blogging!

    February 5, 2013
  2. Rosalie Prosser said:

    As a native Californian, I can only say the railroad owned the place for a long time. My own home town, Redding CA, became the county seat of Shasta County after the railroad bypassed the original Gold Rush county seat – Shasta. Now nearly a ghost town known as Old Shasta. And BTW Redding was named after a Southern Pacific executive…..and that’s just one very small story.

    February 5, 2013
  3. Rosalie Prosser said:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Norris Wonderful pic of Norris. Have you seen the silent film Greed (1924), based on Norris’s novel McTeague? Made by Eric von Stroheim, starring Zasu Pitts and shot in the Bay Area and Death Valley. A necessity for your ultimate film education.

    February 5, 2013

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