Iron monsters in the Spanish garden
“Iron Monsters in the Spanish Garden: The Railway in the Nineteenth-Century Spanish Imagination,” explores the short-lived period of railway euphoria that overtook Spain in the mid-nineteenth century and resulted in the rapid development of nearly 5,000 km of track. This period of fast-paced modernization was bookended by civil wars, punctuated with political and economic instability, and occurred in a country that was arguably the most underdeveloped and volatile in Western Europe. As most historians of Spain’s nineteenth-century industrialization will concede, the effort was a spectacular failure. Yet, this admission of failure has too often discouraged further exploration. It is the position of this dissertation that the notion of failure itself is precisely what makes Spain’s efforts at industrialization and modernization in this period so fascinating and revealing. The planning of Spain’s first railway network began precisely when the first stable Spanish liberal regime was taking shape. It was a moment of great optimism for liberal Spaniards; and they projected their optimism onto the emerging railway, often painting the grand future they wanted to see in vivid detail and with exalted language. The railway, Spanish elites told themselves and others, would finally restore Spain to its rightful position as a major player in European affairs, an eminence it had been denied for centuries. The perception of national decline and perpetual stagnation had been the source of a bottomless pit of insecurity. With each kilometer of track laid and each colorful inaugural ceremony held, these elites became further convinced that Spain’s escape from European backwater status was finally within reach. As a result, what initially seemed the success of Spain’s railway project became a major pillar supporting the terribly flawed liberal state. Unfortunately, heavy state spending on railways that were hastily constructed and failed to bring the touted economic benefits effectively undermined this pillar and brought about a revolution that washed across the nation and dethroned the queen.