The Effect of Railroads on American Life

In the mid 1800s, the only thing stopping Americans from settling the West was the fact that only a long, perilous wagon journey could transport you there. Then, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, the first practical railroad was built. Over time, railroads changed the face of America. They first were used to transport freight, but eventually revolutionized travel, helped fulfill the dream of Manifest Destiny, and created jobs in the railroad industry. Many possibilities were seen in the railroads, and many lives were changed because of them.

Around the mid 19th century, the Industrial Revolution started. This was a period of industrial growth. Gradually, machines took the place of hand tools. Steam engines and flowing water in water mills began to take the place of what used to be power provided by humans and horses. The factory system was also invented as well as interchangeable parts, two inventions that changed the way products were manufactured. Horse-drawn wagons had delivered coal for steam-powered factory machines. With the increase of factory-made goods, a new transport system was needed to carry freight.

There were three main parts of the railroad and train that had already been invented. Steam engines had already been invented and were being used in factories and factory machines. Wooden rails and small carts gliding on the rails were used for guiding coal and ore carts into mines. Now all that was needed was the idea of a steam locomotive. On the request of Samuel Homfray for his iron works, Richard Travithick built a primitive locomotive. He called it this because it moved from one place to another. However, this attempt was not a practical one. The father and son team, George and Richard Stephenson, created a practical locomotive. This train model ran on the first railroad, built in 1827, originally used to haul granite and coal.

There were many apparent advantages of railroads that improved American life and the economy and industry. Before railroads, goods shipped from England would be sent up rivers on barges. Those barges would travel about five miles per hour, while railroads could easily travel at approximately thirty-five miles per hour. This would save a lot of time and money and could ship more perishable items longer distances. Also, trains could be built anywhere. They were not restricted to only waterways. These advantages made railroads popular among traders and merchants.

Above, a Union Pacific Rail Road locomotive, pictured in Utah, circa 1894.

Railroads were also popular among citizens. The earliest passenger train was the 136-mile long South Carolina railroad. Soon there was a rise in business travel because of the convenience of trains as well as travel for pleasure. Before the construction of railroads, traveling away from your home was uncommon. Second homes, as well as summer and winter resorts, were created on the Atlantic coast and also farther west to encourage people to travel west. From the late 1800s to mid 1900s, trains were the preferred form of transportation for long distance travel. Travelers could have their own bedroom compartment and could roam the halls of the cars. The dining car’s food was similar to that of a fine restaurant.

By the mid 19th century, the United States owned large, sparsely settled territories west of the Mississippi. Congress wanted to settle these territories and turn them into states. The discovery of gold in California, a large population of beavers in Oregon, whose fur was in high demand on the east coast, and the invention of railroads were three factors that gave people a reason to go westward. Congress passed many acts encouraging westward expansion. The Homestead Act granted free land to settlers who agreed to building a house and living in the West. The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 granted millions of acres of land to rail companies willing to build a transcontinental railroad. Around this time, the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was popular, describing the belief that the United States was destined to extend “from sea to shining sea.”

The Pacific Railway Act was not only urging railroad companies to build railroads in the west, Congress wanted someone to build the first railroad in the United States that extended “from sea to shining sea.” The Central Pacific Railroad was built, crossing over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. At the same time, another railroad had been authorized by Congress to be built. The Union Pacific Railroad built west of Omaha, Nebraska, the farthest west any railroad reached to at the time. The two railroads met at a crosstie known as the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory in 1869. Within less than fifty years after this, ten different transcontinental railroads had been built. Railroad towns and small cities began to develop along the railroad. Railroad companies lured settlers to live in their territories, now that settlers could travel safely, with ads, posters, and brochures. Train tickets and pieces of land were sold for cheap in order to get more settlers moving west.

With the new railroad industry, many laborers were needed, especially to lay down tracks. In the 1850’s, railroads that were laying track needed more workers. Building railroads took a lot of time and effort. Each rail was lain down by hand. Companies would bribe men with higher pay so they would come and work on the rails. At the same time, a huge migration of immigrants came to the United States in search of work and for a better life. A potato famine in Ireland, potatoes being their staple crop, caused many Irish to come to America and work on the eastern rails. A revolution in Germany caused many citizens to have horrible lives and some faced persecution, so many of them also came to America. Chinese immigrants came to the East to work on the railroad as well as to find their fortune in the California Gold Rush. This rush of new immigrants was helped employers as well as the economy of the nation.

Soon, railroads became an important part of American life and the American economy and industry. Railroads were essential to the development of western agriculture and industry. Trains transported perishable produce to markets. They brought in raw material from far away and could ship goods throughout the country. Manufacturers could now be located anywhere, as railroads were now branched all around the country in many remote places. Trains were also being placed inside cities; subways were developed above ground as well as underground. Railroads also created wealth for those who promoted and funded them. As railroads grew, investors were still hesitant about their profitability. As soon as railroads proved to be profitable, investors were eager to invest capital in the industry.

Many possibilities were seen in the railroad, its industry, and its effect on the country. Businessmen saw potential investments in the railroad industry. They quickly invested capital in those railroads that proved profitable. Businessmen also saw investments in land, mines, service for travelers, and the development of sparsely populated western territories, which railroads gave them more access to. The poor and the many immigrants now living in the United States as well as those still in other countries, saw a place to start fresh in the West, where they could find new jobs and start new lives. Slaves saw opportunities to be free citizens. And women saw a new position in society. Living in the Western frontier, life was hard, and everyone’s best effort was needed in order to survive. Women were appreciated more, and their work payed off, as they received more rights quicker than those women living in the East.

At the time, railroads seemed like the greatest invention. Nothing could bring more success and possibilities to the country. However, railroads did become obsolete over time. In 1903, Henry Ford established the Ford motor Company. Although automobiles had been invented years before, they took much effort, time, and money to make and sell them. Ford had a dream of an affordable, reliable, and efficient automobile. Without railroads and trains, automobiles and streets wouldn’t have been developed as easily. Obviously, automobiles were based off of the idea of trains, a moving car with an engine inside, and streets came from the basis of the railroad. The Model T, Ford’s practical car, was first introduced to America in 1908. The car started at about $850, the equivalent of about $20,000 today. By 1920, the price had dropped to just $300, about $3,200 today. Because of the rising popularity of automobiles, trains became a secondary form of transportation and the railroad became obsolete.

From the time of its invention, the railroad brought success to the United States. Trains transported freight around the country. No form of transportation had ever been able to send perishable goods so far away. Americans soon began to travel away from home for business and for pleasure; something that was rare before railroads. Thousands of jobs were created in the railroads and train building industries. A surge of immigrants came from Asia and Europe, creating a demand for even more jobs, in search of better lives or a job opportunity on the railroad. Henry Ford developed a practical automobile, and the railroads soon became obsolete. So many possibilities were seen in the railroad. Railroads have changed the entire face of America and have had a great effect on the country’s history.