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American Railroads in the 1800's

Updated on January 18, 2016

Railroads of the 1800's: Maximum Impact

Before there was an Information Superhighway where bits of information zipped through cyberspace and before America was connected with the completion of a national Interstate highway system, there was the railroad. Beginning in the 1800’s the railroad and the trains that ran on them brought the country closer than it had never been before. For the first time, it was possible to transport goods, services and people at a much faster rate than ever before. Trains could cross rough terrain, desert, mountains and plains. The historical impact of trains on the 1800’s, including the American Southwest is literally the stuff legends are made of. To prove this point, we’d only need to consider how many times trains have played a prominent role in virtually every western Hollywood has every produced. Westward expansion in the United States runs parallel to the rise to prominence of the railroad in the Southwest. As we will see, settlements and towns sprang up all along railways, thus positively impacting economic development and expansion in the American Southwest. By reading this Hub, you will learn

  • The Historical Impact of the railroad in the United States during the 1800’s

  • How the railroad affected Westward Expansion

  • Economic impact of railroads on the United States during the 1800’s

  • Railroads and the Civil War

  • The Transcontinental Railroad

Source

Railroads: Perspective

To gain perspective, let’s begin with a timeline. We will consider four main time periods that illustrate major milestones in the history of the railroad in the 1800’s

The earliest period, the dawn of the railway in the U.S. 1826 – 1860, Civil War and Reconstruction 1861 – 1877, Expansion and Consolidation 1878 – 1916. The first period we examine, 1826 – 1860 saw the creation of several railroads including, among others, the Granite Railway of New Hampshire, Mohawk and Hudson Railway and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad to name a few. These railways carried freight as well as passengers on their various routes. The table below shows the railway and the route each railway took during the time period of 1826 – 1860

Railway Routes and Time Periods

Route
Year
Railway
Quincy Massachussets to Neponset River Dock
1826
Granite Railway
Around Erie Canal
1826
Gravity Railroad
Around Erie Canal
1827
Mohawk and Hudson Railroad
Port of Baltimore to Ohio River
1830
B&O Railroad
Charleston South Carolina to Savanah River
1827
South Carolina Canal and Rail
Philadelphia to the Ohio River
1827
Mainline of Public Works
Railway and the route each railway took during the time period of 1826 – 1860
Source

Westward Ho

It’s important to note a few major points that are brought out from this time period. As we can see, the proliferation of the railways in the US go from East to West. That is, in the same pattern as Westward expansion. (After all, they don’t call it Eastern expansion do they?) Secondly, we see railways sprout up in the North in places such as Massachusetts and Philadelphia as well as the South, in places like South Carolina and the Savannah River. As we have seen the time period of 1826 to 1830, railroads in the United States were off to a healthy start. This healthy start bodes well for the rest of the entire 19th Century.

Westward Expansion Continues

Two events greatly contributed to the expansion of railroads west in the U.S. Expansion was possible largely in part because of the land grant the US had in place at the time. In addition, Congress’ passing of the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862 led to railroads expansion westward, flourishing during the mid 1800’s. Because of these two events, several railroads were created and expanding westward such as the Union Pacific-Central Pacific Railway which went from Chicago to Omaha and as far west as San Francisco.

Railways & Economic Impact

Perhaps the economic impact of railways of the 19th century in America is summed up best by Wikipedia “The railroad had its largest impact on the American transportation system during the second half of the 19th century. It is the conventional historical view that the railroads were indispensable to the development of a national market in the United States in the late 19th century”


By the 1860’s, the expansion of the Railroad westward was not the only major milestone taking place in America. There was an event that dwarfed the impact of railroad expansion in the minds of Americans everywhere. That event of course, was the Civil War. As we will see, trains and railroad expansion were both major components of the Civil War.


Nevada Northern Railroad - Steam Locomotive 40 Source: Sam Scholes via Creative Commons

Trains and the Civil War

When considering the impact of railroads on the Civil War, consider the following. According to americanrails.com, “When fighting broke out between the North and South in 1861 the country had a rail network stretching over 30,000 miles. Unfortunately for the South, 21,300 miles of this trackage (in conjunction with 45,000 miles of telegraph wire), or about 70%, was concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest leaving the region with only 9,022 miles (along with 5,000 miles of telegraph wire). A further problem for the South was the general poor construction of its infrastructure, built to light and shoddy standards, not conducive to the heavy and continued use during wartime. “ Much of the impact of trains on the Civil War was felt even after the war was over. As it turned out, many of the men who operated the trains during the war were instrumental in building what has been considered any standard, a remarkable achievement. Wikipedia described it as “The Transcontinental Railroad built between 1863 and 1869 to join the eastern and western halves of the United States. Begun just before the American Civil War its construction was considered to be one of the greatest American technological feats of the 19th century.” With the onset of the Civil War coinciding with the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, The United States was undergoing a change of epic proportions. One example is apparent when we consider that before the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the cost of traveling across the United States was approximately $1000. After the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the cost of traveling across the country came down to approximately $150. This lasting economic impact is only one example of how Railroads made the United States of America that much stronger as it helped bring the country closer together via the Iron Horse.

Railroads and Politics

Yet another component to be considered with regard to the railroads of the 1800's is the political aspect. Politics played a major role in the considerable growth of the railroads during that time. According to the library of Congress, “In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The first such railroad was completed on May 10th 1869. By 1900, four additional transcontinental railroads connected the eastern states with the Pacific Coast. Simply stated, it is one thing to actually build a railroad. It is entirely another ball of wax when we consider the political arena with all its unique machinations. Essentially, were it not for the political will of Congress at the time, one can argue that there would not have been transcontinental rail in the United States for some time to come.

Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad
Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad | Source

Summary

As we have seen, the impact of the railroad's rise in the 1800's can't be overstated. It should also be noted that a considerable number of lives were lost in the construction of the railroads under life threatening conditions. Despite the adversity and challenges that come with construction in rough terrain, unforgiving weather, low pay and corruption, the railroads of the 1800's stand as an enduring testament to the perseverance, ingenuity and toughness of the men and women who flourished on the American Western frontier.

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    • maukajam profile image
      Author

      maukajam 22 months ago

      Thank you Jordan. You bring up an important aspect I hadn't considered. I will remember that next time.

    • Jordan Travis profile image

      Jordan Travis 22 months ago

      I study history, and a discussion on the initial corruption and political pandering of the first railroad's construction would add an additional quality to this research-overview piece. A fascinating bit of history!