Thesis: The transcontinental railroad greatly increased Westward
expansion in the United States of America during the latter half
of the nineteenth century.
The history of the United States has been influenced by
England in many ways. In the second half of the 1800's, the
railroad, which was invented in England, had a major effect on
Western expansion in the United States.
"Railroads were born in England, a country with dense
populations, short distances between cities, and large
financial resources. In America there were different
circumstances, a sparse population in a huge country, large
stretches between cities, and only the smallest amounts of
money." ("Railroad" 85)
The first American railroads started in the 1830's from the
Atlantic ports of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia,
Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah (Douglas 23). Within twenty
years, four rail lines had crossed the Alleghenies to reach their
goal on `Western Waters' of the Great Lakes or the tributaries of
the Mississippi. Meanwhile, other lines had started West of the
Appalachian mountains, and by the mid-1850's Chicago, St. Louis,
and Memphis were connected to the East. Still other lines were
stretching Westward, beyond the Mississippi. An international
route connected New England and Montreal and another one crossed
Southern Ontario between Niagara, New York, and the Detroit
During the 1850's, North and South routes were developed
both East and West of the Alleghenies. It was not until after
the Civil War, however, that a permanent railroad bridge was
constructed across the Ohio River. After the Civil War, the pace
of railroad building increased. The Pacific railroads, the Union
Pacific building from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific
building from Sacramento, California, had started to build a
transcontinental railroad during the war to help promote national
unity. They were joined at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869,
completing the first rail connection across the continent.
Before the transcontinental railroad, the Eastern railroads
had lines running only as far West as Omaha, Nebraska. The
Western railroads had a few lines running North and South in
California, far West of the wall of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In between these two networks was a huge gap of about seventeen
hundred miles of plains and mountain ranges. Closing this gap
was a dream shared by many Americans. Businessmen thought of all
the money they could make by having an entire continent full of
customers and using the railroads to serve their needs.
Romantics dreamed of the discoveries of wild Indians, scouts and
hunters, and, of course, gold. Gold had been a desired find
throughout the exploration of America. The California Gold Rush
of 1849 again created much excitement about the search for gold.
The Pacific Railroads were founded when the Civil War was in
progress. Until the war was over, the transcontinental railroad
was a giant enterprise stalled by much bickering between a
reluctant Congress and the Army, who had clamored for it (Cooke
254). If it had been left to the government, it would have taken
another twenty years to complete the transcontinental railroad.
However, it was a commercial venture, and it was fortunately fed
by the adrenaline of competition. There were two railroad
companies building the transcontinental railroad, the Union
Pacific from the East, and the Central Pacific from the West.
The two companies struggled to beat each other in slamming down a
record mileage of track. At first, Congress avidly pursued the
project and they had stipulated that the Central Pacific should
stop when it reached the California Border (Congress was full of
Easterners). In 1865, after much argument about the aid the
government was providing to the two companies, the actual
construction of the transcontinental railroad was started. Then
in 1866, Congress decided that two companies should build as fast
as possible and meet wherever they came together (255).
First, the Union Pacific sent out location parties, tracing
the line and clearing the path by killing the Sioux and the
buffalo in the way of the railroad. Then came the construction
gangs who, working in shifts, graded (flattened) the land by as
much as a hundred miles a stretch. Behind them came the track-
laying crews, each consisting of ten thousand men and as many
animals. For each mile of track, the government was loaning the
railroad from $16,000, for flat land, to $48,000, for mountainous
land ("Railroad" 86). The supplies needed to lay a single mile
of track included forty train cars to carry four hundred tons of
rail and timber, ties, bridgings, fuel, and food, which all had
to be assembled in a depot on the Missouri River. But the Union
Pacific had the twin advantages of comparatively flat land and a
continuous supply line back to the factories of the East coast.
It was quite different for the Central Pacific, which had to
fetch most of its materials, except timber, by sea, twelve
thousand miles around the tip of South America. Another
difference between the two companies was their work-forces. The
Eastern work gangs were recruited from immigrant Irish, poor
Southern whites, and poor Southern blacks, while the Western
crews came mostly from China. The Union Pacific was said to be
sustained by whisky while the Central Pacific was said to be
sustained by tea (Douglas 110).
While the Easterners were racing through the prairie, the
Westerners were stripping foothill forests, painfully bridging,
tunneling, and inching up the mountains. Working summer and
winter, it took the Central Pacific two years to hurdle the
barrier of the Sierras. A thousand miles back East, the Irish
workers frequently fainted in the midsummer heat, but their
employers were kept going by the money they would receive from
the government upon completion of the transcontinental railroad.
With the Westerners over the Sierras, and the Easterners
over the Rocky Mountains, the two armies slogged along the sage
toward each other. When the two crews came within sight of each
other, the Irish turned to their fists to slow down the Chinese.
The Chinese resorted to pick axes, which in turn brought the
Irish to use their guns. The Chinese finally gave in and the
fighting was stopped (Merk 456).
On May 10, 1869 the two rails met at a spot in Utah that was
named Promontory Point. The crews had laid 1,775 miles of track
in just over three years. Five days later, a special Central
Pacific train arrived carrying company executives, engineers, and
state dignitaries. Three days later, the Union Pacific train
came with it's own load of dignitaries, three companies of
infantry, and a regimental band.
"It promised to be a gallant and decorative ceremony.
But in the course of their labor the crew had collected a
more colorful assortment of interested parties: saloon
keepers, gamblers, whores, money lenders, odd-job rovers.
And these, with the cooks and dishwashers from the dormitory
trains, made up the welcoming party." (Douglas 121)
Five states had sent along gold and silver spikes for the
official ceremony. The chosen symbol for the ceremony was a
golden spike which was to be driven in by the Governor of
California, Leland Stanford. The band stopped playing and a
prayer was said. The telegraph operator was connected with San
Francisco and New York and was ready to send the first coast-to-
coast commentary. It was a single sentence, "Stand by, we have
done praying," (Merk 461). Then the Governor of California
lifted the sledge hammer above his head and brought it down to
meet the rail. He had missed the spike, but the telegraph
operator had already sent the message and New York fired a
hundred gun salute, Philadelphia rang the Liberty Bell, and a San
Francisco paper announced the "annexation of the United States,"
"The country might take to the railroad as a novelty and a
tourist fashion, but the companies saw it as a chain of missing
links between the Great Plains and the people who would want, or
could be urged, to settle it," (Cooke 229). The years 1870-1900
were a period of enormous growth in the United States. During
these years, 430 million acres of land were settled, which was
more than had been occupied in all preceding American history. A
considerable part of this expansion was in the Great Plains
("United States of America" 472).
This enormous expansion was the product of a combination of
forces. One was the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act of
1862 was passed by the government to encourage farming in the Mid-
West. The government offered any head of family or person over
twenty-one, either citizen or alien who wished to become a
citizen, a 160 acre section of land. The recipient paid a small
fee and agreed to live on the homestead or cultivate it for five
years (Merk 236).
In addition to the Homestead Act, there was the realization
on the part of informed people that the era of well-watered, free
land was drawing to a close. A warning had been given in 1880 by
the Director of the Census that the era of free land was closing
(Horn 130). The swift expansion across the Great Plains was, in
part, a rush of American farmers who wanted to take part in free
and cheap land in areas that were well watered. A third factor
was the sale of land by states at attractive prices. School
lands, university lands, and other state lands were put on the
market in competition with homesteads.
The chief factor, however, in this swift Westward
colonization was the railroad companies. All of them were eager
to transport settlers to the vast prairie, to get it colonized as
a matter of developing traffic. The land-grant railroads had
their own areas to sell. But, they also aggressively advertised
the free homestead lands of the federal government. The main
objective was to build up settlement as a means of creating
freight to carry. The prices at which railroad lands were sold
varied according to location and soil from five to twenty dollars
or more an acre with easy credit terms. Many settlers preferred
railroad lands that were favorably located over free homesteads.
Railroad companies, especially those possessing land grants, were
colonizers of the Great Plains on a large scale. They carried
forward on a vast scale the work that had been done on a lesser
scale by colonizing companies on the seaboard during the colonial
The Great Plains were advertised with extraordinary
enthusiasm. The Northern Pacific Railroad kept eight hundred
agents in various European countries distributing literature and
assisting immigrants. Literature was spread in every important
European language, especially to areas in which there were
droughts or bad soil. Western railroads had agents in New York
City to receive immigrants; they offered special immigrant rates
to the West, and they gave new arrivals advice on where to settle
and about the best methods of farming. The railroad enterprise
was one of the most important aspects of the history of the West
since the Civil War, and the reason the story is not emphasized
more in summary accounts is that the story has so far been told
only for individual railroads.
"In and all-out campaign to lure settlers, railroad land
offices churned out reams of propaganda that painted the prairies
and plains as a veritable paradise." (Horn 194) Railroads were
not always scrupulous in their colonization methods. They
permitted their New York agents to use dubious means of enticing
immigrants coming off steamboats to settle on their lands. Some
were said to have stolen trainloads of immigrants from each
High-pressure salesmanship was used in disposing of lands to
prospective settlers. Rapturous tales were told about what the
land would grow. The climate of the plains was misrepresented.
Jay Cooke, the financier of the Northern Pacific had weather maps
printed in the 1870's which were altered to show the region a
place of warm winters in order to counteract the impression that
the region of the Northern Pacific was a harshly cold country.
The Northern Pacific was thereafter wittily referred to by
newspapers as Jay Cooke's Banana Belt.
Lack of rainfall was known to be a crucial problem on the
Western Plains. The whole region is an area of semi-aridity and
of climatic cycles. A series of wet years occurs when the annual
rainfall is somewhat more that twenty inches; then a dry series
will follow, bringing years of droughts. It so happened that the
five years prior to 1887 were a wet series on the Great Plains,
when Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota had fairly frequent
rainfall. The propagandists of the railroads, as a result,
either denied the assertion that the Plains were a region of semi-
aridity, or contended that the climate was changing for the
better. They advanced various theories to explain the change.
Plowing the sod was said to produce rain. The stringing of
telegraph lines was said to also produce rain. A theory was
developed that the noise of civilization, the clanging of the
locomotives, etc., lead to the rain. These theories were even
repeated by state officials.
"The scientists of the federal government were not
allowed to counteract such propaganda. In the reports of
the Geological Survey, Major John Wesley Powell was obliged,
at the insistence of Western congressmen who were acting on
the behest of railroad lobbies, to strike out, in his
account of the Great Plains, every reference of `semi-
aridity' and substitute the words `semi-humidity.'" (Merk
All this propaganda led to even more settlement. A prime
example of the effect of the incredible rush of settlement in the
Prairie is the growth of the state of Nebraska, specifically
Omaha, before and after the coming of the transcontinental
railroad. Nebraska was admitted to the Union in 1867, and
despite an economic depression and a grasshopper plague, the
State's population increased from about 120,000 to more than
1,000,000 by 1890. Much of this growth was due to the State's
location along the transcontinental railroad. During the 1880's,
Omaha became an important industrial and meat-packing center.
The railroad connections made this growth possible.
The beef industry was one of the many that were dependent on
the railroad. When the transcontinental railroad went into
service a twenty-nine year old livestock trader from Chicago
named Joseph McCoy had an idea that would be the start of
cowboys. He planned to herd cattle from Southern Texas to the
railroad at Omaha, meanwhile having the cows graze on the
grassland in between the two points (Cooke 229). With the
refrigerated train car in 1870, beef became part of the diets of
the millions in the East (232). Thus, the railroad created a
sustainable industry for the cattle ranchers in the Mid-West and
the city of Omaha.
Many other small towns along the railroad also boomed during
the last quarter of the 1800's. Without the railroad, the
homesteads could have only been reached by wagon, which would
have discouraged many if not most of the settlers going to become
farmers. Unlike the gold miners of the earlier years, the
farmers did not dream of getting rich quickly. They wanted to be
self-sufficient, and they felt that the land on the Prairie could
help them do it. The railroad was an incredible catalyst in the
population of the Mid-West and without it the area might still be
sparsely populated. The transcontinental railroad proved it's
worth and had a tremendous impact on westward expansion. "In
less than thirty years after the Civil War, all across the
`enormous gap' spanned by the railroad, the interior was being
conquered and domesticated." (Cooke 240)
Cooke, Alistair. Alistair Cooke's America. New York: Alfred A.
Douglas, George H. All Aboard! The Railroad In American Life.
New York: Paragon House, 1992.
Horn, Huston. The Old West The Pioneers. New York: Time-Life
Merk, Frederick. History of the Westward Movement. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
"Railroad." Compton's Encyclopedia. 1990 edition.
"United States of America." The New Encyclop'dia Britannica.