The Homestead Act was signed into law on May 20, 1862, and allowed citizens to claim 160 acres of surveyed but unclaimed public land and receive title to it after making improvements and residing there for five years. Less than two months later on July 1, 1962 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which authorized the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Companies to build a transcontinental rail line along the 42 parallel and provided public lands and subsidies for every mile of track laid.
While Homesteading got off to a quick start with 418 filing claims on the first day the completion of the transcontinental railroad took more time. “The promoters of the Union Pacific soon found that enthusiasm was not the only factor necessary for constructing a railroad. Both capital and labor were scarce during the period of the (Civil) war, and in consequence progress was very slow. Only forty miles were built during 1864 and 1865,” according to Robert Riegel in his book, The Story of the Western Railroads.
Railroad work did not stop entirely during the Civil War, and immediately thereafter was resumed with vigor. The Union Pacific was completed in 1869, while other lines began jutting out into the territory and railroads were beginning to be built entirely in advance of settlement, according to Riegel.
The influence of the railroads in encouraging settlement in the new West can hardly be overestimated, according to Riegel. For example, before the Union Pacific reached Wyoming in 1867 there were almost no settlements, but within a year the region was considered well enough populated to permit it to be made a territory on July 25, 1868.
Historian Everett Dick in Conquering the Great American Desert explained the settlement of the west. “As settlement moved west, most settlers made short moves rather than long jumps. More people moved from Iowa into Nebraska than from other states further east, and there was a tendency for western Nebraska to be settled by large number of Nebraskans moving from the eastern part of the state to points farther west. Thus we can visualize the frontier as a slowly rolling line rather than one made by long leapfrogging. In harmony with that concept, we find that most of the railroad grant lands of the Burlington, from 1873 to 1876 for example, were sold to Nebraskans rather than to those who made jumps from eastern states.”
Dick goes on to explain the role the railroads played in westward expansion. “Immigrants went west by various modes of travel. In the earlier period, settlers migrated by covered wagon, but as the railroad built west and offered inviting rates, longer distance travelers came by train. Overseas immigrants were offered special immigrant cars for the long ride from the coast to Nebraska. Equipped for sleeping and cooking en route, the car had a kitchen with stove and utensils in each end and seats arranged in such a way that the passengers could make down beds at night. While they were not palatial, immigrant cars did enable the old countryman to eat in a thrifty fashion and sleep with a degree of comfort. Stops at division points along the line allowed time for the often strangely dressed people to go to an available market and buy provisions for their meals en route.”
Not everyone moving west was able to have such accommodations. Those moving from a few hundred miles to the east often came in a boxcar along with their belongings. Dick explains: “Farming equipment and household goods were stored in one end of the car, and the other was left open to accommodate the livestock, particularly favorite draft animals and perhaps a cherished milk cow. Hay and grain were stored near the stock, and a small space in the middle of the car was left for the family’s living quarters during the several days en route. In this cramped space, makeshift sleeping quarters and cooking accommodations were set up. In mild weather a door would be pushed ajar to provide light, and the near proximity of the animals guaranteed good care for them. The wagon, which had been dismantled and packed as close to the door as possible, was taken out first and set up where it could be loaded with the farming and household goods.”
Together these two pieces of legislation resulted in 400 million acres of land being distributed to those willing to move west and start a new life.