How Did Railroads Develop The West?

Railroads have long played an imperative role in the history of the United States, as they built up towns and cities throughout the mid-west and western states. For many rural communities, the railroads were their only connection to the cities, as they were utilized to ship goods and services from rural farmers, throughout the country.

How did railroads develop the west? Railroads developed the west by connecting small towns and large cities, making it easier for people to travel, and ship their goods throughout the country to various markets. This proved financially prosperous for the farmers, and allowed them to flourish. 

The vital role of railroads in developing the west cannot be overlooked, as the country would have looked much different if the railroads had not connected these communities. There were hundreds of benefits the railroads brought to western development, and is far too much information to compile in a single blog post. However, I will cover a few of the most important aspects of railroads and the development of the western portion of the country in this article.

UP DDA40X #6927 hauls a TOFC/Autorack train through the town of Sherman, Wyoming in 1984. John Rus Photo

Before Railroads

Prior to the railroads, traveling westward was a tumultuous task fraught with steep mountain grades, vast valleys, and unpaved dirt roads. Many early western settlers traveled across the country utilizing an antiquated horse or oxen drawn wagon, which posed various types of debilitating obstacles, such as wagons breaking down, and various sicknesses experienced by the travelers. Furthermore, traveling across the country could take months, and many did not make it to the destination due to disease and other ailments.

Oftentimes, groups of people would travel together in lines called “wagon trains”. Many would pack their entire life into their wagons and set off on their westward trek. Throughout their journey, the travelers experienced much hardship, as many failed to reach their destination alive or uninjured.

According to Spartacus Educational, the wagon trains moved at a slow speed of just 2 mph, and covered just 10 miles per any given day. The wagons lacked various features of modern vehicles, such as brakes, which was increasingly treacherous when traveling down hill. Furthermore, many of the roads traversed by the wagons were nothing but mere tracks left by the wagons of previous travelers.

Jeff Hampton

Another option for cross country traveling was by boat, however, this had its own set of obstacles to overcome. As this was well prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, traveling across the country required travelers to change boats in Panama, however, not without a long walk across the isthmus, and took just as long (if not longer), than traveling by land. However, for various destinations, passengers and goods could traverse rivers and canals located throughout the country, of which, where made much more efficient with the implementation of the steam boat in 1807.

Traveling by boat was an unpleasant experience for many, as passengers were placed in small compartments, oftentimes in steerage with other various goods being transported. Travelers were also at risk for contracting various diseases such as the Flu.

The dangers of traveling westward deterred many from leaving the eastern and Midwestern portion of the country, leading western civilization to only be prosperous after the industrial revolution and the construction of the nation’s railroads. Furthermore, many did not venture westward prior to the railroads because it was close to impossible to visit family members in the eastern portion of the country, due to the long and treacherous journey that had to be endured.

It was not until the industrial revolution began to take shape, and the rail industry began to thrive, when the western portion of the country became substantially populous. The railroad opened up a new world of opportunity for new settlers, as the western portion of the country was a previously untapped market, and there was opportunity for all to prosper.

Railroad Expansion

It was not until the late 1840s when railroad construction increased exponentially. The desire to expand westward was evident, and was especially evident upon the country’s acquisition of California from southern neighbor, Mexico. Early on, the furthest railroads stretched towards the Midwest, connecting much of the eastern seaboard with Chicago and St. Louis.

Various railroad magnates such as Leland Stanford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Collis P. Huntington, just to name a few, ruthlessly pioneered their railroad empire westward. Railroads expanded first westward to Chicago and St. Louis. The PRR reached Chicago via its acquisition of the Fort Wayne Line, and southwest to St. Louis, with the acquisition of the Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad, commonly called the “Panhandle Route”.

Vanderbilt, curator of the New York Central Railroad, revolutionized rail travel between the east coast and Chicago. The NYC, along with longtime rival the Pennsylvania Railroad, together supplied those on the east coast a gateway to the west. Stanford and Huntington invested heavily in the construction of the transcontinental railroad, eventually bringing the plan to fruition.

These routes were lucrative, as the budding railroad city of Chicago began to flourish, however, a passage further westward was duly needed. This came in the form of the Union Pacific and several smaller railroads, forging their way through Iowa.

With the expansion of the railroads to Chicago, the city’s population soon began to skyrocket, as in 1852, the city had just 30,000 residents, and was only served by one railroad. Towards the end of the 1850s, the city’s population had increased to a staggering 109,000 residents, and was served by nearly a dozen different railroad companies. Chicago’s first railroad, the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, proved to investors in the eastern portion of the country that railroads were a viable entity, which led them to invest in future railroads to serve the budding metropolis.

By the end of the 1850s, there were over 3,000 miles of track in Chicago, leading the city to become a hub of commerce and industrialization. By 1856, Chicago’s railroads had doubled. This was due to the realization that railroads were much less expensive to construct compared to other forms of transportation, such as canals, and could move large masses of goods at once.

The American railroads were constructed in a unique precedence, as wherever they were constructed, newly established towns lined the tracks. Towns arose along the tracks due to the convenience of traveling and shipping goods throughout the country. The establishment of the railroad allowed the west, especially California, to flourish financially.

Furthermore, prior to the establishment of the railroads, farmers could only sell their crops to those in the small town in which they lived, and did not encompass the ability to expand their businesses on a larger scale. Furthermore, most people who made the wagon journey westward rarely moved from their newly established towns, making it increasingly difficult to prosper.

Transcontinental Railroad

When the transcontinental railroad was proposed, the country began to view the notion of cross country train travel as a reality. However, with the Civil War at the nation’s forefront, the project was not completed until 1869, when the Central Pacific, coming from the west, and the Union Pacific, the east, met at Promontory Point, Utah.

Upon its completion, passengers and goods could now be transported across the country in a matter of days, as opposed to months, at speeds of up to 25 mph, which was quite quick during this time. Before long, every small town and city had one or multiple railroads running through them.

The railroad allowed many people to prosper, and changed many lives for the better. Manufacturers and small business owners could now transport various products that allowed business owners to reach markets in every corner of the country. According to History, the transcontinental railroad provided businesses to trade internationally as well, in fact, the very first shipment of goods that traveled eastward from California was Japanese tea.

In addition to transportation becoming more accessible, it became more affordable as well. The average cost of traversing the country by stagecoach was $1,000 ($20,000 today), which was extremely expensive and unaffordable for those who weren’t particularly wealthy. (History) However, with the introduction of the railroad, these prices were reduced by as much as 85%, according to History, which made traveling westward more attainable.

Prior to the railroads, places such as California could be seen as a distant land that traveling to could be unattainable. However, the railroads brought the country closer together, allowing people to travel faster and view the country in a different light. Furthermore, in 1883, the railroads helped establish time zones, as standard train schedules were becoming commonplace.

Railroads also changed how people purchased goods. Similar to today’s shipping companies, the railroads allowed people to personalize their spaces, such as their homes and businesses. Railroads could ship items in a timely manner, thus, various entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunity and began creating mail order catalogs, in which, much like online stores today, items could be purchased and shipped to local railroad depots for pickup. This allowed people to purchase items such as home furnishings and clothing from around the world.

Because of the need for wood for fuel, ties, and bridge supports, various forests in the western portion of the country were leveled, completely altering the landscape of the west, and put many species of animals in danger from hunters. Furthermore, as towns were established alongside the railroad right-of-way, forests and other natural resources were decimated, which changed the characteristics of the country forever.

The transcontinental railroad ushered in a new form of financing business ventures as well. The construction of the transcontinental railroad brought light to a new strategy for businessmen to finance their empires. Railroad barons such as Stanford, invested very little of their own money into the railroad, instead, they borrowed money from the government and refused payment. This practice continued as the nation’s railroads came to fruition. These controversial approaches to doing business came under great scrutiny, as it was noted that the taxpayer was funding the railroads, while the railroad barons were amassing quite a fortune.

The transcontinental railroad molded America into becoming a world financial and industrial superpower, and changed the way those living there viewed the nation. The expansion of the railroad assured the country that many great innovations and breakthroughs were yet to come in the near future.

Agricultural Boom

The railroad and agricultural industries have long been intertwined, as they have expanded and grown together. The two entities work together to deliver produce and fuel the nation. Furthermore, one would find it difficult to exist without the other in the 19th century, making both a vital lifeline for the economy. Because most of the country resided in rural towns during the 19th century, agriculture has formed the backbone of the American economy and landscape since the country was founded.

Perhaps the individuals that benefited most from the expansion of railroads was the agricultural industry. The railroads allowed farmers to specialize their crops, and treat their produce as commodities, instead of just growing food for their families. Farmers could now have an improved focus on economies of scale, as they could grow a single crop and ship it to various different markets.

Jeff Hampton

Prior to the expansion of the railroads, farmers had a limited market in which to sell their goods. This market was usually to the individuals who resided in the small, rural towns in which the farmers lived. However, with the expansion of the railroads, most notably, the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, allowed farmers to serve various markets throughout the world.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the railroads to the farmers was the low cost of shipping rates, allowing farmers to ship their goods to various viable markets. Furthermore, the quick transportation provided by the railroads allowed farmers to hire workers from neighboring towns and cities.

In addition to railroads supplying the transport needs of the farmers, new machines were developed as a result of the industrial revolution. These machines made farming easier and quicker, as farmers were able to produce more crops in a timely manner for shipment. One of the most notable machines that improved the life of farmers was the John Deere plow, which allowed farmers to till the soil quickly.

It is evident that the railroads allowed the nation’s farmers to prosper. The railroads gave farmers the opportunity to specialize in a certain type of crop, improving efficiency, while earning hard working farmers a substantial and steady income.



Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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