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The Impact of Railroads on Washington State

Updated on June 16, 2012

A history

Railroads promoted settlement in Washington. They created new towns and shortened the journey that once took 3-5 months to only 5-6 days to the area. As a result of transcontinental railroads, travelers poured into Washington as cities and farms popped up all over Washington. Many Washington cities, such as Oakesdale, are named after railroad workers or managers. The “railroad era,” when railroads were a major part of both Washington and America, lasted from the 1870s to the 1920s.

Before transcontinental railroads connected the more populated east coast to the Pacific Northwest, early Washington railroads transported people and goods around the falls of the Columbia and moved wheat by Walla Walla. An early railroad was the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad, which gained good profits. The Northern Pacific Company serviced Seattle and Tacoma. Another railroad company was the Great Northern Company. Unlike its predecessors, it was a pay as you go railway, which encouraged agricultural settlement.

New railroads were welcomed into communities as railroads promoted growth and prosperity. The transcontinental railroad system opened a nationwide market up for local produce, such as wheal and timber. Railroads allowed for easier travel for both business and pleasure. Many communities were dependent on railroads for jobs, supplies, and transportation. The placement of railroad stations had a large impact on cities. For example, instead of building a train station in Yakima City, one was built several miles away. At this new position, a new city—North Yakima—was formed. And 30 years later, North Yakima became simply Yakima and Yakima City was gone.

Railroads also helped create major supply centers, such as Spokane, to the surrounding areas. During this time period, railroads were centers of community life and civic showplaces. Railroads were America’s biggest business.

Railroads contributed to industrial expansion, such as timber, urban development, large scale migration, and political reform movements in Washington.


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    • James Peters profile image

      James Timothy Peters 

      6 years ago from Hammond, Indiana

      Awesome work.

      I'm trying to get the city of Hammond, Indiana to take care of Engine #624 which is an old steam locomotive. It was given to the city of Hammond as a token of gratitude for being such a busy railroad by the Nickle Plate Railroad Company back in the 50's.

      It's a shame how we've taken care of it. There was even talk about scraping it...oh no, please HELP - anyone?


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