Nationwide Railroad Network


TOPIC: The development of a nationwide railroad network and the effect it had on American economic life.


The dynamic combination of business leadership, capital, technology, markets, labor, and government support is especially evident in the development of the nationís first big business-railroads. After the Civil War, railroad mileage increased drastically from 9,000 miles of track in 1850 to more than 250,000 miles of track during the early 1900ís. (Dickason 61)


More than any other technological innovation or achievement of the 19th century, the development of a nationwide railroad network had the greatest impact on American economic life. Railroads created a market for goods that was on a national scale, and by doing so encouraged mass production, mass consumption, and economic specialization. The resources used in railroad building promoted the growth of industries, especially coal, steel and oil. Railroads also affected the routines of daily life. After the American Railroad Association divided the country into four time zones in 1883, railroad time became standard for all Americans. And one of the most important innovations of the railroads may have been the creation of the modern stockholder corporation and the development of business management, and the regulation of competition.


The first primitive form of the railroad evolved in Europe during the 1500ís. Miners pushed wooden carts filled with coal out of the mines along wooden rails.


The problem with the wooden rails was that they wore away from constant abuse. In 1776, metal plates were placed on top of the wooden rails to protect them from wearing down. In 1789, a man named William Jessop introduced cast iron rails soon followed by wrought iron rails. During the mid-1800s steel rails were introduced which revolutionized the railroad industry. These steel rails soon took the form of an upside down T when scientist Robert Stevens demonstrated the strength and efficiency of his design. (Dickason 57-58)


Before the Civil War, during the early stages of the railroads, the building of many separate local lines had resulted in different gauges and incompatible equipment. These inefficiencies were reduced after the Civil War through the consolidation of competing railroads into integrated trunk lines. (Gordan 151) Cornelius Vanderbilt used his millions earned from a steamboat business to merge local railroads into the Central Railroad in 1867, which ran from New York City to Chicago. (Anonymous) Other trunk lines, such as the Pennsylvania Railroad, connected eastern seaports with Chicago and other Midwestern cities.


The building of railroads played a crucial role in the settlement of the last frontier. They promoted the settlement on the Great Plains as well as providing a link between the East and the West creating one great national market. Recognizing that western railroads would lead the way to settlement, the government provided railroad companies with huge loans and land grants. The land was given in alternate square-mile sections along the proposed route of the railroad. (Gordan 151) The government expected the land to be bought up by many new settlers, increasing the value of the land and that the railroads would be used for the mail and transporting troops.


On July 1, 1862, president Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, which designated two companies to construct a railroad that would link the East and West coasts. Between the two companies, a capital of $100,000,000 was set and a telegraph line had to be run along the route of the railroad. (Holbrook 166) On December 2, 1863, construction began in Omaha, Nebraska. The Union Pacific workforce mainly consisted of Irish immigrant workers. (Holbrook 167) On January 8, 1863, the Central Pacific railroad company began construction in downtown Sacramento, California and built eastward using Chinese immigrants to complete the project. (Holbrook 166) On May 10, 1869, the two railroads came together at Promontory Point, Utah, where a golden spike was ceremoniously driven into the ground to mark the linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines. The whole project was completed over the time period of just 5 years. (Holbrook 170)


The land grants and huge financial loans often promoted poor construction and widespread business corruption. Many railroads frequently suffered from mismanagement and outright fraud. Speculators like Jay Gould went into the railroad business for quick profits and made millions by inflating the value of the corporationís assets and profits before selling its stock