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How did the transcontinental railroad affect western expansio

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,"

(Cooke 218).

"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.

Knopf, 1977.

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

Books, 1974.

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.

1990 edition.

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