Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation

Alfred Runte


What did America lose with the decline of the passenger train? Much more than most Americans think.

Alfred Runte’s National Parks page on PBS

Alfred Runte’s video clips from the National Parks special

Weight N/A
Dimensions N/A

Hardcover, Poster

ISBN: N/A Category:

Look Inside


What did America lose with the decline of the passenger train? Much more than most Americans think. The greatest loss is the alliance between technology and the land, according to public historian Alfred Runte. Once abandoning railroads would have been unthinkable, but we have virtually forgotten the importance of trains for our country and for ourselves. Now the landscape suffers in our mindless rush to get rid of old technology and blindly embrace the new.

Runte asks us to reevaluate existing modes of transportation and to recognize the need for railroads—not just as a safe, efficient, and interactive means of travel, but also as effective stewards for our dwindling landscape. Challenging the notion that speed is the only way to conquer our nation’s expanse or that beauty does not matter, Runte reminds us of our love for distance, and the joys of open space. Travel is not only about arriving at our destination quickly, but is also what we experience along our route. Recalling train travel experiences of his own, Runte invites us to interact as we travel, to look out the train window at our country, and to care passionately about the landscape we see.

Noting our own history as well as Europe’s, Runte points out what has gone wrong with the U.S. railroad system and calls us all to task: railroad companies, Amtrak, the U.S. government, environmentalists, economists, politicians, railroad historians, and ordinary citizens. As a true visionary with a deep respect for the land and its people, Runte asks us to open our eyes and our minds to the idea that beauty could once again be part of our daily lives. He gives us hope that railroads we so carelessly threw away may still be restored to preserve the remaining glories of our continent.


Prologue: The Earth on Display

The Places We Rode
The Legacy of Phoebe Snow
What Europe Is Teaching Still
Dismemberment and Farewell
Vows Made to Rivers
The Debate We Never Had
The Quick Fix
Tunnel Vision
Home Again, and Santa Barbara
Gateway to Wilderness
Designing for Nature
Grand Canyon
Future Imperfect
The Time We Save
Something Real
Power and Obligation
Rethinking Europe

Epilogue: The Land Would Ask for Trains
For Further Reading
About the Author


An internationally acclaimed environmentalist and environmental historian, Alfred Runte came to the subject of railroads while exploring the American land. Born and raised in Binghamton, New York, he began his travels aboard the legendary Phoebe Snow, viewing the beautiful and varied American landscape from his window seat. In 1959, following the death of his father, his mother took the family west on a 10,000-mile camping trip, visiting the national parks. Years later, pursing his PhD at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he realized that the parks had been formed by railroads. America’s identity is the land, and our love for the land was first made possible by the railroads. Truly, Allies of the Earth has been a book in the making for more than 50 years.

Now an independent scholar and consultant, Runte still travels widely on behalf of railroads and the environment, most recently to Brazil, where he gave the keynote address at the Fourth Brazilian Congress on Parks and Protected Areas in October 2004. He is also on the editorial board of Natureza & Conservação, the environmental journal of Brazil’s Fundação O Boticário de Proteção à Natureza. He remains a board member of the Center for the Study of the Environment in Santa Barbara, California, and has served on the boards of the National Parks Conservation Association, National Association of Railroad Passengers, University of Alaska Press, and Susquehanna Conservation Council.

Runte has taught at five different colleges and universities and worked on the staff of the Smithsonian Insitution. He has consulted for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, and spent four summers as a seasonal ranger in Yosemite National Park. He was an advisor to Ken Burns for the PBS series on the national parks. He has been a featured guest on Nightline (ABC), The Today Show (NBC), 48 Hours (CBS), The History Channel, and The Travel Channel. Allies of the Earth is his fifth major book.


Recognized by Malcolm Kenton in his article: "There's Nothing Like a Dome Car".  - Trains, September 2014

A thoughtful and thought-provoking account written from the soul, Allies of the Earth postulates some interesting ideas about the role railroads could play in promoting national conservation and economic sustainability.

— Midwest Book Review

Allies of the Earth is a splendidly produced book featuring beautiful cover art and rich period imagery promoting the railroads’ relationship with the environment. The book’s high production values, engaging and accessible narrative, and timeliness—considering the current national debate over increased energy costs—makes this fascinating study essential for environmental historians, students, and the general public.

—Environmental History

Allies of the Earth is a worthy addition to any collection. With a multitude of handsome illustrations and a compelling argument for a return to increased rail service for both freight and passengers, this volume is not only a good read, but a valuable resource for America’s future.

—ForeWord Magazine

Runte’s unabashed support of America’s train heritage and his deep look at the history of how trains came to such a low point work to hook a more general readership. With such a deep history, and with so many nuances that touch upon our national fiber, from conservation, preservation, urban and regional planning, Runte’s railroad world is pumped full of life, and his style of writing breathes authenticity and empathy into each page. In the end, Allies of the Earth should convince any sound-minded American that the passenger train is vital to reviving America on many levels.

—The Pacific Northwest Inlander

“Railroads protected our national sense of place.” So writes internationally noted environmental historian Alfred Runte in Allies of the Earth: Railroads and the Soul of Preservation. This thought-provoking book explores the many reasons why railroads—passenger railroads in particular—were once an important part of the national identity and should regain that distinction.

—Railway Age

Academic and consultant Runte describes what we have lost with the continued decline of the US passenger train, including a sense of national space and reverence for natural resources. Runte notes that what we saw out our train windows was as close as many of us every came to understanding the ways of the nation and the beauty of the nature within it. He describes the process of losing our passenger railroads and the process it will take to bring back a safe, efficient form of travel that, unlike flying high over the landscape, involves a certain commitment of time as well as a closer look at who we are and where we live. Along with this review of the situation Runte gives his own memories of a life on trains, and the result is an elegant and well-reasoned argument accessible from a personal level.

—Reference & Research Book News

You may also like…