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Broadband and the Railroad

(top) Home & Store in Forestville, MN
(bottom) Thomas and Mary Meighen

In 1868, the railroad bypassed Forestville, MN and the town died. Not right away, but in time my distant relatives, Thomas and Mary Meighen, saw the town dwindle, people move away (and they did too), and they were left with the farm and the store attached to their home. Farm workers, paid in ‘chits’, kept the store going until 1910, when Thomas abruptly closed the store — the last business in Forestville — with all the merchandise inside.

Eventually, the Minnesota Historical Society purchased the property (and what was left of the town property) and turned it into a State Park.

My Dad and his cousins tell stories of being little kids on weekend holiday at the farm, rubbing the windows so they could peek inside at all the old clothing, canned goods and sundries inside. Nearby Preston, where many other relatives lived, thrived since the railroad passed through it instead of smaller Forestville to the south.

The lesson here is how important transportation was for physical goods in the late 1800′s and that the location of a railroad line dictated the fate of a town (though post-Civil War economic doldrums didn’t help). You may remember (or have heard stories) about how imperative it was for businesses to be “located on a siding” so railroad cars could load and unload easily, but what’s less obvious is the economic explosion that accompanied the laying of track and the development occurring alongside it.

Then the Interstate Highway system rolled out in the early 1950′s and location became less important as did the railroad itself. In April of 2006 I wrote, “Where is the Internet equivalent of the Interstate Highway System?” and talked about the absolute need for broadband and the lip service paid by politicians though the US was 12th in the world in broadband penetration.

We’ve slipped to 15th today.

Reading GigaOM yesterday, I noticed that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released their report on global broadband (PDF) and found the United States ranks 15th worldwide with a broadband density of 23.3 subscribers per 100 inhabitants. Dismal situation growing more dreadful by the year.

Today, I’d argue, transportation for digital bits is as (if not more) important than the movement of physical goods were back then. In a digital age, not only is location less important, it’s pretty much irrelevant…unless you don’t have access and fast access at that.

If Thomas Meighen, active in Minnesota politics, were alive today he’d be sounding the alarm to ensure that the equivalent of being bypassed by the railroad was a fate avoided by towns all across America.