Tom Winans and Major Whistler touring their Russian railroad project
by Paul H. Belz
Tom: Thursday, September 10, 1846
Once again, the feeling of imprisonment and its concomitant urge to flee is gripping Tom as the Neva River’s ice silently thickens and will inexorably lock the door to St. Petersburg. Nature won’t relinquish the key for five months. His fourth Russian winter is imminent, and the brutal experience always reduces his perspective on life to its most elemental, heightening the search for meaning. Like shipping, railroad work will cease from November’s freeze till April’s thaw. City fathers have estimated winter deaths, and graves are being dug in advance. Aside from accumulating snows and paralyzing ice, nothing changes about Tom’s living and work environment except the freedom to leave it. That alone is emotionally devastating, a deprivation wealth or power cannot assuage, and it’s as close as Tom ever gets to empathetic feelings for the enslaved.
Homesickness grows wolves’ fangs, but counterbalancing that emotion is stark fear when contemplating the perilous return trip to Baltimore, accompanied by ever-looming outbreaks of dysentery, typhoid, and scarlet fever. He endured the journey from that city in the spring of 1843. His father’s firm had been invited to join an American venture being assembled by Czar Nicholas I’s minions to build Russia’s first public railroad, the line from St. Petersburg to Moscow. It was a venture driven by the Czar’s dream of facilitating troop movements and conquests rather than any notion of commercial benefits to Russian citizens.
Tom’s memory assaults him with every leg of that Odyssey, which separated him from his family for the first time at age twenty-one: the twelve-day steamer trip through mountainous swells from New York to London; another steamer across the North Sea to Hamburg; the overland trip to Lubeck, Germany; the steamer up the Baltic Sea to the Russian naval base at Cronstadt; and, finally, the three-hour trip on a tiny, dirty steamboat up the Neva to St. Petersburg. Tom worked most of that year before the invitation became a contract. His younger brother Bill joined the group a year later but nearly succumbed to seasickness and vows never to return home unless someone invents a boat which conquers the rocking of the waves.
Once the Neva is solid, homesickness subsides, supplanted by desires fueled by the Romanoff capital’s winter diversions. During the inactive phase of the railroad project’s annual cycle, whores become repugnant to Tom, and the yearning to procure a wife grows incessant. His commitment-oriented romantic pursuits are sporadic and highly conflicted because the working season is a time tyrant, and the marital role models in his life are anathema to him.
For the wealthy, St. Petersburg’s long, dark winter days are brightened by extravagant parties, musical family gatherings, and the Nevsky Prospect, a boulevard of magnificent churches, fashionable shopping, and a multitude of cultural events, pre-eminently the ballet and opera. The poor have only their churches and seasonal festivals to alleviate their misery, and the luckless among them succumb to the lottery of contaminated water—white tanks bringing it from the Neva for drinking, green tanks from the Fontanka River for washing, and yellow tanks from the slow, dirty canals for scrubbing floors and carriages. The only certainty is that the water carts dispense random death to the poor at the rate of ten a day from dysentery.
Tom frequently hosts $40 a plate winter parties for twenty people. Greenhouse-grown delicacies such as oranges, pineapples, raspberries, strawberries, asparagus, radishes, lettuce, apples, and pears are served in the comfortable brick home he and Bill share on the edge of the Alexandrovsky Cast Iron Foundry, just beyond the city. In honor of this source of his wealth, Tom has named the grand estate under construction in Baltimore Alexandroffsky, changing the spelling in deference to his—and many Russians’—thirst for French culture.
Two partners from Philadelphia, Andrew M. Eastwick and Joseph Harrison, Jr., live in an identical home on the opposite side of the complex. Their powerful Atlas engine influenced the Czar’s scouts to choose them as the sole contractor for Russia’s rolling stock, but the project’s leader, Major George Washington Whistler, was impressed with Ross Winans’ work ethic and integrity, the quality of his engines, and his firstborn son Tom’s persona which exudes charm, leadership, and sales skills. As managing partner, Whistler spends most of his time traveling the rail line overseeing the work of forty to fifty-thousand serfs. Partners at the foundry must be trusted to work without supervision, and to that end he fended off hoards of sycophants offering imaginative bribes to join his lucrative enterprise. Even the alcoholic brother-in-law who introduced Whistler to railroading in 1828 was excluded and embittered. The Major negotiated for almost a year to convince the Russians that the Philadelphia firm was too small to handle the rolling stock production alone. In December 1843, Whistler’s influence prevailed. The Winanses were approved by the Czar’s Temporary Technical Commission of the Department of Railroads, and the partnership of Harrison, Winans & Eastwick was formed. It would be the first of four, each increasing the Winans’ control.
The Americans’ five-year rail construction contract specifies a line four-hundred and two miles long (607 versts) with seventy aqueducts and two-hundred bridges, many servicing St. Petersburg’s canals and rivers rather than the railroad. The project’s scope includes replacing the city’s temporary pontoon bridges with its first permanent stone structures. While Whistler shepherds the construction line, the four partners living at Alexandrovsky have hired and are managing thousands of their own workers to produce rolling stock and build bridges. They’ve trained the Russians to use and repair what’s built to date: two-hundred engines and seven-thousand cars, including tenders, passenger, baggage and post cars, as well as box and platform merchandise cars.
Tom is rich, decorated by the Czar, and anticipating his return to America next year. The five-million dollar rolling stock contract is ahead of schedule albeit two-million dollars over budget. When advisers ask what this railroad is ultimately going to cost Russia, the Czar replies, “Only God and Kleinmichel know.”
Today, Tom is accompanying the Major and Count Kleinmichel along the elevated, macadamized chausseé—which parallels the equally elevated rail line—as they inspect progress and gather data for the Count’s weekly report to the Czar. Whistler hopes to open the first short stretch of the line next May, from St. Petersburg to the town of Kolpino. The projection is for eighty-thousand passengers and two-million pounds of freight in the first year.
Tom is fantasizing about this winter’s search for a bride when the Count’s shout to the coachmen brings the powder blue and silver Court coach to a jarring halt. To their left is a horrific sight that etches Tom’s psyche indelibly.
As the Count steps onto the chausseé, Whistler whispers, “Now we’ll see the Czar’s Hound revel in brutality that would be the envy of any Georgia plantation overseer.”
As Kleinmichel walks along a silent line of workers, each in turn bends over, approaches in that position, kisses the hem of his bright raspberry uniform coat, and proclaims, “I kiss, your lordship.” Then the serf backs away, still bowing.
“Judging from the severity of this birching, I’m guessing these are runaways,” Major Whistler says.
Beyond the chausseé is a clearing containing what at first glance appears to be one large, bloody, writhing organism. Squinting through the carriage window, Tom discerns thirty-two prone, naked men, with guts clearly spilling from some. The wailing unfortunates are being lashed unrelentingly over their backs, buttocks, sex organs, and heads by Kleinmichel’s railroad policemen. Their powder-blue uniforms—the Empress’s color—are dotted red, almost symmetrically, as if the implement responsible were a priest’s aspergillum rather than the recoil of a split birch branch soaked in pickle brine.
“Kleinmichel’s police keep the serfs submissive with birchings whenever they complain about living conditions or desert their work crews. I’ve seen eighty birched at one time. But there’s a second facet to his cruelty. The tavern you see just ahead of us is part of a franchise given to Count Kankrin to minimize complaints and forestall organized revolts by keeping the workers drunk in their spare time.”
“But the Russians worship you; can’t you intervene to improve the men’s plight?” asks Tom.
“Welcome to the railroad you haven’t been seeing from the Alexandrovsky foundry. After three years, I’m surprised you’re not better informed, but you have your father’s extraordinary focus and drive, which explains why the foundry is so far ahead of its schedule. Since your work is largely done, I’ve brought you on this tour so you could glimpse the seamier side of how you’ve become wealthy. We Americans are well-paid, and the Czar allows Kleinmichel to openly steal public monies. But the serfs work fourteen hour days for their quit-rent, live in sod huts away from their families, sleep on the ground, fend off wolves, eat maggoty salt-meat, rotted potatoes, a few vegetables, and bread so hard they must cut it with an axe. Only the lucky ones avoid typhoid. As you see, they may neither complain nor leave. To police fifty-thousand such unfortunates on the wrong side of the wealth-sharing equation, the Count insists ‘one must rule like a beast,’ and logic is unable to contest the point. My conscience protests, but Anna and my family’s future speaks in a louder voice.”
“And what gave the Count such standing with the Czar?” asks Tom.
“Kleinmichel saved Grand Dukes Nicholas and Michael from capture by Napoleon in France in March 1814. When the Winter Palace burned to a shell in 1831, the Count got it rebuilt in a manner of months, and he also squashed the Polish rebellion for the Czar that same year. Those Poles were enslaved as road-builders until being switched to the railroad, and Kleinmichel takes particular glee in their birchings, which often result in death. A grateful Nicholas made him a Count, gave him a magnificent house in Chernigov, and appointed him minister of communication and public works. That house, by the way, which Kleinmichel calls Pochep, has a chapel the envy of many bishops. Young Alexander technically heads the Department of Railroads, but Kleinmichel answers only to the Czar, meeting with him regularly on Thursdays. The Czar’s ruthlessness, unpredictability, and imposing physical presence keeps Kleinmichel fearful, but Nicholas has been in good spirits since this past July’s celebration of his fiftieth birthday and the marriage of his daughter Olga to the Prince of Wurttemberg.”
“But what of your influence?” asks Tom.
“In addition to my salary, which Anna relentlessly spends and gives away to please her God, I made certain demands on the Russians before accepting their offer. After the unexpected death of the Czech Gerstner, the dismissal of the French and English as incompetent, and the rebuff of his offer by Moncure Robinson, the Czar needed me. His scouts Melnikov and Kraft liked my work in the Berkshires, so I had leverage. They quadrupled my Boston & Albany salary to $12 thousand a year and made an unprecedented concession by not requiring us to join the Russian military or wear their uniforms. I have never humbled myself in Russia by calling anyone ‘your majesty.’ The Czar and I address each other as ‘sir,’ and I grovel before none of his underlings. We have our summer dacha on the road to Peterof and the ten-room tenement in the Ritter Dom on the English Quay. You have admired its view overlooking the Neva facing Vasilievsky Island, which, of course, is where young Jimmie is privileged to study art at the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Kleinmichel has repeatedly intervened on my behalf when corrupt Russian contractors have provided dangerously inadequate bridge hardware. He even fired the profligate old Prince Beloselsky-Belozersky, whose new scam is selling blood-lettings to ill railroad workers. My influence, however, stops with the serfs. The brutality you see here nearly sent me home on several occasions, but I decided to conquer my conscience. It is not brutality of my making. This land is brutal. I travel to England next week to bring Debo back to our family. With disease rampant, summers in St. Petersburg are unfit for young women. I will bless the last day of my existence in this cursed place.”
The Major is an enigma to Tom. The West Point graduate inspires his workers to Herculean production, and he was a fine enough soldier to have won the hand of Mary Swift, the daughter of West Point’s surgeon. Yet he looks more like an artist to Tom, with long curly hair, smooth white skin, a delicate mouth, and a very pleasant face. He romanced his now-deceased first wife by playing the flute under her bedroom window, and he draws well enough that he was sent to England in 1828-1829 to sketch for the B&O Railroad’s research team. No one doubts Whistler’s engineering skills, but Tom believes his real genius is in manipulatively using his effeminate appearance and irrepressible congeniality to lull opponents into underestimating his toughness. Congeniality is a sea-change from Tom’s own father Ross, an inveterate curmudgeon who thrives on raw confrontation.
As Tom restlessly moves to exit the coach, the Major reaches to stop him.
“We have a wait yet, so stay comfortable Tom. The good Count savors his alpha male role and lingers when blood is flowing and his hem is being fondled. Anna’s gossip circles have dredged up the intelligence that the son of Ross Winans wants to take home a Russian bride next year, and she has commanded me to enhance her stature by ferreting out salacious details. Your father will never approve, you know.”
“It is true I am attracted to the independent spirit of the Russian women. They are opinionated and politically astute.”
“As are many New England women of my acquaintance,” says the Major. “God makes clear decisions with men and women’s bodies but makes mischief with their souls. There are men with the soul of a woman, women with the soul of a man, and countless gradations in-between. The soul that is allowed to emerge is only what family and societal traditions allow. Were Alexandrovsky in Moscow rather than St. Petersburg, I’m confident you would have a different opinion of Russian women. The woman of Ross Winans’ could never be the woman of Henry Stanton’s. But would you really want a wife who demands the word ‘obey’ be dropped from her marriage vows? Women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton secretly abound in America. What’s not abundant are husbands who allow such independence and political divergence from their own views.”
Whistler adds, “Consider our traveling companion. The Czar’s Hound, as the serfs fondly call him when his hem is out of their view, requires his wife, a good St. Petersburg woman, to mimic the growth of the Czar’s mistress Barbara Nelidova, whenever she is with child. Nelidova, of course, is hidden away. After the bastard is born, Kleinmichel forces his wife to adopt and raise the child as her own. The Czar is quite grateful for this diabolically imaginative service.”
“So it’s like serfdom; slavery under the guise of an acceptable social institution—in this case marriage,” says Tom.
“Many women make pacts with the devil for comfortable lives,” says the Major. “But nature’s justice makes the indulgent self-absorption of the comfortable as stressful as the desperate self-absorption of the poor. The Count’s machinations make him a perpetually angry man, well aware that his sudden demise has so many potential origins that he can trust no one.”
“You make your point convincingly,” says Tom. “I suppose my true quandary is not over where the most desirable women are sired. When I look at the men I most admire in life—my father, yourself, Napoleon and the Czar—I see models for achieving great power. But with apologies, Major, I also see lives with very little joy and marriages that are either tempestuous or which, in my father’s case, have reduced the woman to the role of a slave at home and a decoration in the community. I want both power and joy.” The Major frowns at this arrogance and naivete.
“Achieving power can be meticulously planned. Joy and true love can’t be sketched like a new locomotive. You can only immerse yourself in possibilities, and one day it magically appears. Logic is not a player in the quest for romance. The men you admire all would have it if that were so. Had your father remained on his New Jersey farm to pursue joy instead of leaving his family for productive years spent alone in Baltimore and England, he would still be a poor farmer beholden to his wife’s inheritance, and you would not be a rich young man.”
As the tall, gray-eyed Kleinmichel steps into the coach, his four exquisite Russian Orlov grays resume their effortless, synchronized gait. Whistler goes silent. Tom returns to his reverie.