Friday, December 24, 2010

The Western Railroads

A study of railroads in America can be said to be a study of the 19th century itself. The railroads carried heavy loads faster, and over longer distances, than any previous means of transportation. As railroads were built across the United States, they opened up wide farming and ranching areas. Cross-country migrations which took 4-6 months by wagon were reduced to trips lasting just four days. Railroads tapped rich forest and mineral resources, and brought better health to people by hauling a greater variety of perishable food than had ever before been available. Railroads connected the West to the East; towns sprang up along the tracks, and cities grew where rail lines met. Cattle were driven to the railheads of Missouri and later Kansas, creating towns in the process. Towns the tracks missed withered and sometimes died. Railroads promoted tourism, and enabled early legislators to justify the creation of the first National Parks. Railroads also had an enormous impact on the arts, in folk songs, storytelling, paintings, and popular culture during the 19th century.

Adapted from an article by Mike Corns

The epic story of the construction of the first railroad to run from coast to coast began in the 1840s, with the acquisition by the United States of vast new western lands as a result of the war with Mexico. But the individual states and regions argued among themselves about which route was the most desirable, causing a deadlock in Congress which lasted throughout the 1850s.

By June 1861, a railroad was a necessity for the over 300,000 inhabitants of California. The moneyed interests of the state decided to act on their own, and formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company in San Francisco. These same interests were able to push through the transcontinental railroad bill in Congress on June 20, 1862. With the Southern states out of the Union, a route along the 42nd parallel was chosen for the railroad, running from Omaha, Nebraska along the Platte River and through Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Nevada to San Francisco. The Central Pacific Railroad was chosen as the company to build over the Sierras. Congress gave them 10 to 20 square miles of public land plus up to $48,000 in loans for every mile they completed. Congress incorporated the Union Pacific Railroad Company to build west from Omaha, and gave them a right-of-way of 400 ft. and 20 sections of land (12,800 acres) for each mile of road in existing states, and 40 sections (25,600 acres) for each mile of road in U.S. Territories.

Ground was broken for the Union Pacific at Omaha on December 2, 1863 and the Central Pacific broke ground on January 8, 1863 at Sacramento, California and many long years of work commenced. Finally on May 10, 1869 with the telegrapher's message, "1, 2, 3, Done!" the golden spike had been driven home at Promontory, Utah, completing Americas' first transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific/Central Pacific.


The first transcontinental railroad was only the beginning, however. Within thirty years the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, the Northern Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Great Northern, and finally the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific railroads had been completed. In addition to the six transcontinentals, scores of regional feeder lines also came into being. Roads such as the Texas Pacific, the Missouri Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande Western, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, and the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific became equally important in opening the American West. A person wishing to relocate to the West need not resign him or herself to leaving family, friends and civilization behind, for the railroads were civilization. It is no wonder that within just a few years the railroads carried as many people to new lives in the west as had taken the Oregon Trail in thirty years. William Tecumseh Sherman said in 1883: "I regard the building of these railroads as the most important event of modern times, and believe that they account fully for the peace and good order which now prevail throughout the country, and for the extraordinary prosperity which now prevails in this land."

The railroads changed the whole complexion of the West. Where once between the Mississippi and the Pacific only a handful of trading posts, mining towns, and forts now existed cities and towns. "The Great American Desert," as the plains of Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas had once been described, now became dotted with farms and ranches. The railroads not only provided the means to get there, but also an easy and affordable way to ship the goods to the market places back east.

For many people the railroads themselves became important employers and economic factors. Many end-of-rail towns, such as Cheyenne, Wyoming, became important rail junctions where locomotives were serviced, cars could be maintained, freight classification yards operated, and crews were changed, and travelers rested and ate. Other places grew from small towns into great cities as a result of the railroads. Denver, for example, had been a mining town and probably would have become a ghost town after the ore had played out if not for the entry of the rails. Soon after the arrival of the railroad, warehouses, stores and factories were built, and Denver became the great city of the Rocky Mountains.

Of course there is another side of the story to the construction of the railroads. American Indians, who contrary to Hollywood's version had looked upon the early wagon trains with more curiosity than maliciousness, now found their entire lifestyle threatened by the "iron horse." Often passengers shot buffalo from moving trains just for sport. The rails scarred Indian hunting grounds. Within a little more than a decade, Indians were relocated on reservations, and their once vast hunting grounds became farms, towns, ranches and cities.

By 1890 the United States Census Bureau determined that there was no longer a western frontier, since all parts of the west had been explored and settled. By 1900 there were 260,000 miles of track in the U.S. Gauges and time zones had been standardized, air brakes and automatic couplers installed, locomotives improved, rails strengthened, and Pullman and dining cars added. Not only were there regular railroad lines, but also interurban transit between cities and trolley lines, elevated railroads and subways within cities. America was a nation on rails everywhere one looked by the end of the 19th century, a century of steam and rails which united West and East more quickly and efficiently than any other single factor.

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