Railroads During the Industrial Revolution

Railroads during the industrial revolution shaped the American landscape as it stands in the modern age. Names such as Vanderbilt and Hill have left their mark as the true industrialists of the gilded age. 


Few advances in American history have been as prominent as the expansion of the railroads. During the early nineteenth century, the desire for technological advancement was ever prevalent. With the invention of the steam locomotive, bright opportunities lied ahead. The introduction of the railroads in the United States transformed the country from a modest agrarian society, into a modern, industrialized nation, connecting people throughout the country in a matter of days, as opposed to months. The lives of many throughout the country rarely left their villages, as barter and trade was commonplace in this rural society. However, the railroads ushered in a new era of commerce that would change the lives of all Americans forever.

Although the towns were sparsely connected, a few primitive modes of transportation existed. One of which were crowded dirt roadways, which became nearly impassible during less than ideal weather conditions. The busiest of these roadways in the United States was the Route 1 between New York and Washington D.C., which was primarily a mail route. An easier, albeit, longer option were the canals, which transported both cargo and passengers. Additionally, canals rarely transported perishable goods because of the extended travel times, which prevented the transport of farmer’s crops to market. Additionally, passengers upon the ship had little creature comforts, which discouraged many, otherwise willing passengers, from traveling.

Rail transport originated in England in the early 19th century, as various wooden tramways were constructed to transport coal between the mines and the canals. These early railways in England served the purpose of connecting existing industries in order to transport items quicker than ever before. Conversely, in America, railroads were constructed to connect to previously untapped territory, therefore, encouraging expansion and commerce. Upon the advent of the steam locomotive, various locomotive manufacturers from England began shipping their locomotives across the pond. Before long, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad constructed the very first American locomotive, the “Tom Thumb”,  and thus, American railroading was born.

Although still in their infancy, American railroads began to prosper during the Civil War, as various machinery, ammunition, and other items needed to be transported. Following the war, the country shifted from an agrarian society, to an industrialized nation, as with the railroads, it was now possible for industries to be connected like never before. It was now possible for entities such as farmers and steel companies to exchange their goods with consumers and businesses throughout the country. Prior to the railroads, many parts of North America remained desolate, as their geographical features proved difficult for access by horse and wagon.

With the Civil War finally in the history books, railroads began quickly expanding. Significant individuals such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and James J. Hill, received backing by shareholders, and began introducing railroads to rural and urban areas alike. These prominent industrialists of the gilded age were coined “Robber Barons”, because of questionable business practices, and bribes to receive low interest loans, which would result in high market shares. These types of business practices eventually lead to a monopoly of railroad ownership and construction, in addition to shipping rates, of which, the farmers were the most affected.

Because of the scandalous business practices sought out by these individuals, they were loathed by many, however, the American landscape would look drastically different without their existence. James J. Hill pioneered the Great Northern Railway, which connected the country with the pacific northwest, and established accessible transportation to the vast iron ranges of Minnesota, albeit breaking various anti-trust laws throughout its construction. Vanderbilt, responsible for constructing the New York Central Railroad, employed various revolutionary business practices, which would mold the future of the country for over a century. In addition to the rapid expansion of railroads, these ruthless tycoons prompted the government to pass the Sherman Anti-trust Act, which attempted to regulate various monopolies throughout the new industrial age.

How did the railroads affect people’s lives?

With the abundant interest in the railroads, westward expansion was ever prevalent. Towns began to appear throughout the west and Midwest, encouraging economic growth and prosperity. People yearned to reside next to the railroad, as it enabled them to travel and ship goods throughout the country. For local farmers, it meant shipping crops to consumers hundred of miles away. For many, it meant being able to travel across the country with ease and without fear.

Additionally, residents throughout the country now had the opportunity to enjoy foods that would not usually be readily available in their area, or not in season. The railroads allowed those in the northern states to enjoy crops such as oranges during the winter months, as they could be grown in a warmer climate, and shipped via rail. Railroads also encouraged the cattle boom, and the establishment of various “cow towns” throughout the west. During the boom, meats began to be mass produced, as they could be shuffled throughout the country in chilled reefer cars.

Railroads changed how people worked as well. For many decades, farms had been the mainstay of the majority of the nation. Entire families worked the farms, both to feed themselves, and sell their crops for profit. The railroads fueled the industrial revolution in America, thus, various farming machines became commonplace. Machines such as the reaper mechanized the nation’s farms, thus, investors began to take interest in farms, and competition became fierce. With investors interest in farms, acreage grew, however, the number of farmers throughout the country had diminished, and the farm was no longer a family business.

With the industrious young country constructing railroads throughout previously unoccupied land, new businesses, some of which exist to the 21st century, began building factories to meet their needs. Because farming was now mechanized, many children of farmhands sought employment in these factories as farm work was sparse. Many individuals felt a sense of independence working these jobs, as they enjoyed the self-reliance of a wage earning job.

The wage job required adjustment for most, as instead of working for their own needs on their farm, they were working for a company, in a fast paced, repetitive environment. Many skilled craftsmen began working repetitive, dangerous jobs due to the work pace of the company, and the demand to complete the work how the overseers saw fit. Although many of the new professions included being present operating a machine on the factory floor, many educated individuals received salaried office jobs and oversaw the factory workers. This resulted in the factory worker’s resentment of the salaried workers, as they encouraged them to work quicker and more efficiently in a perilous atmosphere. Additionally, because of the work environment and low wages, the towns and cities in which these factories were located became slums.

Although there was much indifference regarding how factory and corporate work was performed, one aspect everyone could agree on was the plentiful amount of products that were now available. Prior to rail travel, many products were either made in the home, or by local townspeople. However, with the railroads and mass production, it was possible to ship items from throughout the country and beyond, making luxury furnishings and other household items commonplace. During this industrious time, many American staples, such as Sears & Roebuck, Macy’s, and Campbell’s Soup became popular, employing thousands, and bringing many goods not previously available, into American homes.

Because the railroads proved so popular, various cities and towns began to dot the American landscape. Previously, buildings were constructed from what was available in the nearby town, such as stone and brick, which was used sparsely. However, with mass production at its forefront, various lumber suppliers began selling lumber to builders, and shipping it throughout the country by rail.

Of all the advancements rail travel provided, increased communication is perhaps its greatest undertaking. Prior to the railroads, mail traveling across the country could take months to reach its destination, either by boat of horse drawn carriage. However, with the railroads, this time was cut down to just days, connecting the country unlike anything before. Therefore, the Railway Express Agency was established, allowing  mail to be transported and sorted while in transit, and delivered in any location with a train station nearby. Additionally, it allowed news to travel across the country, as newspapers could be printed in large cities and delivered to any town with a railroad depot.

Railroads had a profound impact on politics as well. Prior to the railroads, many Americans could not put a face to the name of the various presidential candidates. Candidates simply remained in Washington, as it was a treacherous journey across the country by wagon. However, with the addition of the railroads, most notably, the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Candidates began “Whistle Stop Tours”, where they would stop in almost every town large or small with a train station, and would make their pitch for the presidency. Usually, the candidate would stand on the back porch of an observation car, and give a speech as a crowd of supporters looked on. This became commonplace, giving the candidate the ability to reach the country on a larger scale. Additionally, it gave voters the ability to view their candidates first hand, and to view their stature and demeanor. In a sense, railroads increased the power of the voter tenfold, and made it possible for them to make a more informed choice.

Westward Expansion

The landscape of the west was widely unknown by many in the east. Many who yearned to move westward were discouraged by fear and the unknown, especially by the treacherous landscape and the unstable wagons that would have to traverse it. Until the railroads, settlers would remain in their small towns and traverse no further than a few miles away.

Prior to rail travel, the only mode of transportation westward was via wagon trail, mainly utilized by fur traders. This trail was often treacherous, and required much resilience to complete the journey. Due to the lack of accessibility before rail lines, California remained rather desolate from the rest of the country, as it was recently named a state, and apprehended from the Spanish. This acquisition led to the opening of many addition wagon trails, however, the risk was evident. A few of the many risks involved in crossing the American landscape by wagon were disease, famine, and threats of attack from local Indian tribes. The railroads negated many of these risks, making it possible to travel quicker and more conveniently than ever before.

When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the population of California and the west grew rapidly. The journey westward was no longer a treacherous, month long endeavor, as travelers reached their destination in a matter of days. Many families from the east or mid-west journeyed to California for new opportunities, especially the California gold rush. Additionally, because of the ease of rail travel, families migrating from east-west could now return eastward to visit family and friends, increasing the attractiveness of westward migration.

Many who trekked westward and became farmers in the new territory found themselves battling with the railroads over shipping costs. In its infancy, the rail network consisted of many smaller branch lines, which made up a significant portion of the network. However, many larger railroads, such as the Union Pacific, began purchasing these smaller railroads, and significantly increased shipping costs. These railroads formed a complete monopoly over farmers shipping their goods to market, and significantly affected their livelihood. This resulted in a push for change by the farmers, forming a coalition, and promoting their cause to the government, requesting a maximum shipping rate, and an end to the monopoly.

Entertainment and the Railroad Industry

Besides the easily recognizable changes the railroad introduced to the country, they also brought about change in different industries, most notably, the entertainment industry. Prior to the railroads, townspeople had a limited amount of entertainment options, as only local entertainers or musicians were commonplace. However, after the expansion of railroads, performers from around the country, and the world, began to tour various towns along the railroad network. Names such as the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus became common shows throughout the country, shows that would not be possible without the railroad.

1876 map of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad

Astoundingly, the railroads played a significant part in major motion pictures, as they transported film throughout the country, to theaters in both every metropolis and small town. Interestingly, similar to the majority of the west, Hollywood was made accessible via the railroads, transporting performers and film makers to the budding film making town, as prior to the railroads, travel westward was tedious, and took months to reach the west coast. Although motion pictures did not come to fruition until well into the 20th century, railroads during the industrial revolution allowed performers such as the circus to visit various towns throughout the country.

If not for the railroads, these types of entertainment options may not have been available until air travel became more commonplace in the early 20th century. It is often surprising how much of a profound impact railroads had on the current landscape and geography of the country. In a sense, the railroads prepared the country for the birth of the motion picture, as travelers were becoming accustomed to the landscape passing as a blur outside the train window, similar to viewing a picture on a screen.

Shaping the Modern Era

In a sense, the railroads built the United States, especially in the west, where the landscape was largely uninhabited. It is rare for a small town in America to not have a railroad running through Main street. The railroad introduced a sense of standardization and unity within the country, as now news headlines, movies, and the like traveled quicker than ever before, and was able to reach every small town and large city. Furthermore, railroads are credited with creating separate time zones throughout the country. Prior to the railroads, time of day was determined by the position of the sun, however, with trains operating throughout the country, standardized time zones were implemented. The country was divided into four time-zones, eastern, central, mountain, and pacific, and were all in sync with each other to ensure train scheduled would remain on time. Time zones throughout the world were implemented due to rail travel, and allowed the world to be in sync with each other, especially when involving commerce and shipping.

Railroads forged the face of modern America. They altered the way we travel, and ultimately, the way we live. The advent of the railroads figuratively shrunk the size of the country, as it was now possible to cross the nation in a matter of days instead of weeks or months. Additionally, fears of traveling were subsided, as threats were not as prevalent. These factors encouraged many to migrate westward, and sequentially, played a major role in the industrialization of the west. Although various innovations, such as air and road travel have significantly cut into their services, railroads continue to play a vital role in everyday American life, transporting everyday goods and merchandise, safely and efficiently, and to this end, will continue for future generations.





Lifelong Rail Enthusiast and Owner of Worldwide Rails

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