Railroads Open the West
(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)
Congress wanted a rail line that would cross the
continent. To build that transcontinental
rail line, railroad tracks would have to be laid
thousands of miles across the West. The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific
railroad companies were chosen to do the job.
The Union Pacific Railroad started from Omaha,
Nebraska. Most of its workers were Irish immigrants. They laid tracks across the
flat Plains and across the rugged Rocky Mountains.
The Central Pacific started work at the other
end of the line, in Sacramento, California. Its workers were mostly Chinese
immigrants. They cut a route through the Sierra Nevada and across the hot
deserts of Nevada.
On May 10, 1869, the tracks of the two railroads
came together at Promontory, Utah. For the first time, people could travel by
train from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
Other railroad lines were soon built. By 1893, five transcontinental railroad lines were carrying people to the unsettled areas in the West.
In the years after the Civil War, railroad
building became the nation's biggest business. By 1900 there were nearly six
times as many miles of track as in 1865.
Because of government help, western railroads
were big from the start. In contrast, the large rail systems of the East were
formed by combining smaller companies that had been started earlier. For
instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt created the New York Central system by buying
smaller railroads across the eastern half of the country. By 1873 the New York
Central was providing direct rail service between New York City and Chicago.
Two other systems that tied together eastern and
midwestern cities were the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio.
Meanwhile, the Southern Railway linked Washington, D.C., with such southern
cities as New Orleans.
the Railroads: How did the railroads change American history?
The railroads helped end Indian control
of the West. The Plains Indians, across whose
lands the railroads cut like knives, fought this invasion, but in vain.
Indian fears were justified. The railroads brought the buffalo hunters,
miners, and settlers who would destroy their world.
The railroads tied together the economies of the West and East. From the West, the railroads carried eastward such raw materials as lumber, minerals, livestock, and grain. In midwestern cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Cleveland, the raw materials were processed. Grain was milled into flour. Hogs became bacon and hams. Cattle became beef. Iron ore was converted into steel. Lumber was cut into wood for housing. The processed goods were shipped by rail to eastern cities. From eastern cities, in turn, came manufactured goods, which were sold to westerners.
By turning the nation into a single giant
marketplace, the railroads helped the growth of American industry. They also
spurred the growth of those cities connected by railways.
The railroads helped people settle and
farm the plains and valleys of the West. The
cattle and wheat these people raised would feed the cities. Many of these
farm families had moved west with dreams of independence. Yet they often
found themselves at the mercy of outside forces. Railroad companies
controlled their ability to move their crops and the cost of transporting
them. Eastern buyers determined how much they would pay for the crops.
Railroads changed the way people thought about the environment. Until the age of railroads, people lived and worked mainly where there was water transport, such as rivers or the sea. Roads were primitive, following valleys from town to town. Snow, ice, rain, and floods could close down both water and road transportation. It was hard to keep to a schedule in the face of such hazards.
Railroads were different. Engineers and surveyors laid out the railroads in almost straight lines between cities. Railroads made possible cities like Denver, Colorado, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. These cities had no water transport at all.
Railroads even broke free of what was called "sun time." Formerly wherever people had lived, noon was the time when the sun was highest in the sky. This system created a nightmare for the people who set railroad schedules.
At first the railroads set up "railroad
time" along sections of the track. These time zones were so local, however,
there were about 100 of them in 1883.
To deal with this problem, the railroads agreed to a system of standard time. They divided the United States into four time zones. Although the plan went into effect on November 18, 1883, many communities refused to accept it. Congress itself did not adopt the scheme until 1918. Today the country is divided into six time zones, the four original ones plus Alaska Time and Hawaii-Aleutian Time.
Standard: Ask for a copy of the graphic organizer for this activity. If one is not available you may download and print a copy. Copy the notes into your graphic organizer.