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Can the West Lead Us to a Better Place?

An engine of change for 140 years, the region has more influence than ever. Its direction is important to all of us.

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By David M. Kennedy

From the evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest to the spires of the Rockies and the majesty of Monument Valley, the West has long been a land of legends. The region has bred countless fables, songs and stories. Yet the reality of the 21st-century West may well outshine even its own extravagant mythology.

Few of those legends are more fabulous than the saga of the Golden Spike. For six scandal-plagued years, crews of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, lavishly subsidized by government loans and land grants, pick-axed and sledgehammered their way toward each other across mountain and prairie. On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah, they linked up at last to create the continent's first coast-to-coast rail line.

That morning a Central Pacific crew lowered onto the crusty desert soil the road's last tie, hewed from a California laurel logged off the shoulder of Mount Tamalpais and polished to a mirror finish by a San Francisco billiard-table maker. While a crowd of dignitaries, laborers and high-spirited spectators looked on, another Central Pacific crew, all Chinese, laid a section of rail across one end of the tie; an all-Irish Union Pacific work gang did the same on the other. The gleaming timber's predrilled holes were ready to receive not one but several ceremonial spikes. Among them was a 14-ounce fabrication of pure California gold, on which “The Last Spike” was elegantly inscribed—the very spike that has long been so richly celebrated in Stanford lore, and a replica of which can be viewed at the University's Cantor Arts Center.

Shortly after noon, Union Pacific locomotive No. 119 and the Central Pacific's No. 60, the Jupiter, chugged to within a few hand spans of each other. Central Pacific chieftain Leland Stanford stepped between the cowcatchers. The Golden Spike was gently inserted into its prepared hole. Stanford gingerly tapped it with a silver-plated maul.

Along with the laurel tie, the fabled “Last Spike” was swiftly spirited away for safekeeping. It was never intended to serve as the line's final nail, never hammered home, never fixed to a rail-binding “chair,” and was not even the last of the ceremonial spikes to be dropped into the augured hole.

A few moments later, a standard replacement tie in place, Stanford gave a few token taps to an ordinary iron spike. Well, not quite ordinary—this one was wired to the Union Pacific telegraph line, and a copper plate fixed to the head of Stanford's maul was connected to the Central Pacific wire. When metal met metal, a telegraphic circuit closed, simultaneously firing cannons in San Francisco and New York, and setting off a pandemonium of fire alarms, church bells, whistles, gongs and cheering in Sacramento, Omaha, Chicago, Buffalo, Philadelphia and countless other cities. The iron spike was pounded down at last not by Stanford but probably by a Chinese workman whose name is lost to history. Even it was not the definitive “last spike.” Axe- and jackknife-wielding souvenir seekers quickly pirated it off, along with the tie in which it was seated, as they did perhaps a dozen other replacements until the whiskey-giddy crowd finally dispersed.

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” says a character in John Ford's classic 1962 western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The few bare facts about the “wedding of the rails” at Promontory were being braided into legend even as that electronic pulse ignited imaginations all along the telegraph wires. Some news reports alleged that an effete ex-Governor Stanford clumsily missed his would-be manly swing at the spike. One orator foresaw a great statue of Columbus rising high in the Rocky Mountains, testament to the ultimate realization of the Great Mariner's dream of finding “the way to India.”

The renowned California fabulist Bret Harte confected a conversation between the locomotives:

What was it the engines said
Pilots touching—head to head
Facing on the single track
Half a world behind each back?
Said the Western engine, “Phew!”
. . . You brag of your East. You do?
Why I bring the East to you!
All the Orient, all Cathay.

A decade later, traveling on a Central Pacific train through Wyoming, Robert Louis Stevenson gazed at the monotony of the passing terrain and reflected that “mile upon mile, and not a tree, a bird, or a river, only down the long sterile canyons the train shot hooting and awoke the resting echo. That train was the only piece of life in all the deadly land; it was the one actor, the one spectacle fit to be observed in this paralysis of man and nature.”

That awakened echo reaches us still. The story of the transcontinental line completed at Promontory a century and a half ago is a story whose chapters are still unfolding. Now as then the desiccated landscape that Stevenson beheld remains the region's most pervasively defining characteristic, as most of it lies within the 20-inch isohyet (the boundary of an area with less than 20 inches of annual rainfall) that meteorologists use to define aridity. Now as then, save for the giant infrastructural investments like the railroad and the colossal hydroelectric, irrigation and interstate highway projects that came after it, most of the territory west of the 100th meridian would remain a parched paralysis of man (though maybe not of nature—like most people in the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson had scant sense of the rich ecosystems that the Western deserts supported). Now as then the government—especially the federal government—has been the indispensable architect and patron of those projects, a factor far more important to “the winning of the West” than all the trappers and cowpokes and ranchers and sodbusters there ever were. The federal government is still, more than a century after the Homestead Act, the biggest landlord in the trans-Mississippi states. Now as then the region is deeply shaped by the most advanced technologies of the day; what the railroad was to the West's 19th-century vitality, so are the great high-tech complexes in Silicon Valley and Seattle in the 21st. Now as then the region is home to an astonishing array of peoples, a place toward which millions have lifted their heels from all points of the compass for more than a century and half. Now as then the West serves as America's portal to all the Orient, all Cathay—today known less poetically as the Pacific Rim. And the West still fires imaginations as it did those of Harte and Stevenson—and Mark Twain and Willa Cather and Frank Norris and Jack London and Wallace Stegner and Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, as well as iconic Western fantasy factories like DreamWorks and Lucasfilm and the Disney empire, not to mention the likes of David Packard, '34, Engr. '39, and William Hewlett, '34, Engr. '39, and Bill Gates and Jerry Yang, '90, MS '90, and David Filo, MS '90, and Sergey Brin, MS '95, and Larry Page, MS '98.

For decades, the West has been by far the country's fastest-growing region. Since World War II, with the exception of Florida, no states have matched the growth rate of the 10 Southwestern, Rocky Mountain and coastal Western ones. The hypothetical “center of gravity” of the nation's population marched steadily after the westering sun in the first century of the republic's history and then slowed to a crawl, barely managing to inch across the map of Indiana in the 60 years after 1880. But then, as Stanford's historian Richard White colorfully remarked, it was as if WWII tipped the continent on its axis, and people, wealth and resources all spilled toward the West—and kept on coming even after war's end. Beginning with the demands of war mobilization, especially the enormous labor needs of ship-building and aircraft-construction facilities on the Pacific Coast, America's population center has sprinted westward (and southward) since 1940. It crossed the Mississippi in the 1970s, is today in southwestern Missouri, and almost surely will lie in Texas within the next few decades—a tectonic demographic shift with far-reaching consequences.

One in every three Americans now lives in the trans-Mississippi West, making it easily the most populous of the four traditional regions (Northeast, Midwest, South and West). One in five lives either in Texas (23 million) or California (36 million), the two largest states. (Longtime largest New York now ranks third, with 19 million.) One of every eight Americans lives in California alone.

Most Native Americans live in the West, as do most immigrants, conspicuously including the two largest immigrant communities, Asians and Hispanics. All four “minority-majority” states, in which nonwhite peoples compose more than half the state's population, are in the West: California, Texas, New Mexico and Hawaii. Hispanics now outnumber blacks as the nation's biggest minority, and their ranks are growing vigorously, especially in the West. They are 14 percent of the national population, but 44 percent in New Mexico, 20 percent in Colorado, 29 percent in Arizona, and 36 percent in both Texas and California.

Some commentators, whether charmed or alarmed, call this development the “Reconquista.” The term reminds us that the vast section of the United States that stretches from Louisiana to Oregon was torn from Mexico's side by sword and musket in the 1840s, and is now being re-Mexicanized by the gentle but inexorable power of the cradle. To be sure, the West's emerging demography constitutes an intriguingly ironic turn of time's wheel, but it also poses a challenge unprecedented in American history: how to accommodate a large, culturally coherent immigrant group with enough critical mass (and proximity to its mother country) to resist traditional assimilation for generations, if it so chooses. That drama will be principally played out in the West, and its results will prove hugely consequential for the nation as a whole. Indeed, the West has a historic opportunity to be a teacher to the entire world, given that more than 200 million people now live outside their country of origin, transforming societies that have never known immigration in modern times, such as Italy, Ireland and Scandinavia. Nowhere is there a more hopeful model for building a truly multicultural modern society than in the American West.

Living in an underwatered, unforgiving land, Westerners also have every incentive to be pioneers once more—this time in the development of adaptive strategies to deal with global warming. The complex engineering schemes that tamed the Missouri, Colorado, Columbia, Sacramento and countless other Western river systems, the systems that have watered Idaho's barren Snake Plateau and California's dusty Central Valley and lit cities like Portland, Denver, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, were designed to capture runoff from water-rich mountain snowpacks that are no more. In much of the Cascade and Rocky Mountain ranges, the water content of the spring snow mass is less than half what it was as recently as 1950. The great dam and impoundment systems built in the 20th century were based on meteorological assumptions—and population estimates—that are no longer tenable. Surface levels at great reservoirs like lakes Powell and Mead are at historic lows, and the West's thirst is dropping the water table in the region's great fossil-water aquifers that have taken centuries to charge. Water made the West, and its historic evaporation will unmake it—unless this generation is as creative as its forebears in finding sustainable ways to live within the 20-inch isohyet.

Meanwhile, all those people and all that engineered water have nourished one of the world's most robust economies. The West accounts for nearly a third of the nation's output. California alone, were it an independent country, would qualify for membership in the G8, rivaling France's GDP and easily surpassing Canada's. And the West supplies more than half of all U.S. exports to Asia—more than $1 trillion in 2006. Much of that wealth owes to the perpetual innovation machine that is Silicon Valley, a relatively tiny neighborhood that Stanford helped to incubate in the post-WWII years. It now attracts more than a quarter of all the venture capital funding in the United States.

All those people have political consequences as well. Because the Founders envisioned a dynamic society that would spread over the Appalachians and beyond, and because they were committed to perpetuating both representative government and equal representation, they made the United States perhaps the only country in the world that mandates a regular census in its constitution. Every 10 years we are constitutionally obliged to count ourselves and reapportion political power accordingly. We redraw the maps of congressional districts, and, not so incidentally, revise the calculus of the Electoral College, which allocates presidential electors to states on the basis of their representation in Congress. That decennial exercise means that the nation's center of political gravity has steadily tracked the westward shift of population. In 1960, the last year that saw the election of a president who came neither from the West nor South, New York was the largest state and commanded 45 electoral votes. California had 32. Today, California has the largest congressional delegation and consequently 55 electoral votes. New York has shrunk to 31. The states that lie entirely or in part west of the 100th meridian now hold nearly 200 of the 270 votes need to elect a president. Within a generation, as soon as the census of 2030, their political heft will be far greater, perhaps enough to elect a president entirely on their own.

Should those states act in concert, they will dominate national politics into the indefinite future. Even if they do not act together, their weight is sure to be increasingly counted in the scales of national policy-making.

So what might West-dominated politics look like? The future is always opaque, but it's reasonable to ask if it will be a politics of intolerance or inclusion, sensitive to the economic and human realities of immigration and diversity and seeking reasonable ways to accommodate them. Will it be a politics of further resource exploitation, or one that will lift environmental issues, especially respecting land use, water supply and sustainable mining, timbering and fisheries practices, to the forefront of the national agenda? Will it be a politics that will steward the centers of technological innovation that have long propelled the West? Will it be a politics that continues to be agitated by the distant federal landlord's imperial sway over so much of the trans-Mississippi area, as already foreshadowed in the “Sagebrush Rebellion” of the 1980s? Will it be a politics increasingly oriented to the Asia-Pacific region, as well as to Mexico and Latin America? And will it be a politics that will reflect the West's historic impatience with inherited ways and the received wisdom, its openness to invention and experiment? These are among the questions that Stanford's Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West is dedicated to exploring. (See sidebar above.)

The West remains the stuff of legend. Stanford University has long been legend's child, born of the railroad, nurtured by war and its aftermath, progenitor of Silicon Valley, and an oasis of contemplation as well as creativity for generations of Westerners, and for others, too. Few institutions of any kind are more redolent of the region's history or more crucial to its future. To borrow from Wallace Stegner, no institution is better positioned now to give back to its neighbors in the West not simply men to match its mountains, but “a society to match its scenery.”

DAVID M. KENNEDY, '63, is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and co-director of the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West. In July he will retire from full-time teaching.

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