Social, Economic and Political Results From Railroad Development in the United States
In the span of about fifty years in the middle of the 19th Century, the United States changed from a vast country separated by wide, empty spaces to a country connected by railroads. In the process, the railroads affected the social and economic development of the country and had major effects on some of the most important political events in our country's history.
When railroad construction began in the United States, most travelers who crossed the country to the west coast could travel for up to six months, very often walking beside their wagons. Until the completion of the transcontinental railroad, only wagon paths crossed the United States (UP, 2002).
By comparison, shortly after the transcontinental railroad was completed, people were being encouraged to travel by train across the country as a leisure activity. IN 1969 Samuel Bowles wrote, the railroad] brings... A new world of nature and of wealth...full of delightful surprises for the lover of scenery, the student in science, the seeker of opportunity for power and for riches. It is the unrolling of a new map, the revelation of a new empire, the creation of a new civilization, the revolution of the world's haunts of pleasure and the world's homes of wealth." (Bowles, 1869)
When the railroad industry began, many small companies had built of tracks, often of different gauges, that covered only a couple of miles (SU, 2002). The transcontinental railroad, the pinnacle of 19th century railroad construction, would join two very distant and different areas of the United States: the east and west coasts. To this, it would have to cross "some of the most difficult terrain on Earth, described as "ruinous space" by a Boston newspaper (UP, 2002). Building the railroad across the country took over 20,000 men. All labor was done by hand, and the number who died in the effort isn't known (UP, 2002). Along the way, railroads made dramatic changes in American life.
As railroads developed, they opened new areas for settlement (AUG, 2002b). The trains facilitated westward expansion by making such travel safer and faster (Lander, 1855). Ironically, they both divided families and served to bring family and friends together. This is noted in the diary of a building engineer of the time, who noted in his diary, "In March (1886) the Beech Creek Railroad was completed to Clearfield, and when the summer schedule was made out passenger trains were run to Clearfield." (Jencks, 1999) When tracks were laid, passengers followed.
As railroads looked to cross the country, the information surveyors sent back added greatly to knowledge about the unexplored regions of the country. One surveyor reported to congress, "... The impractical nature of the western mountains shuts the northern route from the western terminux." (Lander, 1855) However, in another part of the surveying report, the engineer noted other natural resources that could be used by an expanding country. He reports "exposed frontier for over 1500 miles, and in direct vicinity of a great navigable river." (Lander, 1855) He further reported a pass at Walla-Walla, but impractical for trains even though it had been used by wagon trains. Exploration of the West by railroad companies seeking routes provided detailed information for mapping the frontiers more accurately, which in turn facilitated population as well as commercial expansion.
One of the problems encountered was a shortage of labor, because many adventurous men had been lured to California's gold fields (UP, 2002). One solution was to recruit and hire immigrants. Chinese laborers were valued for train building because China had a tradition of accomplishing great building projects, such as the Great Wall (Steiner, 1979). Chinese laborers understood the importance of one man's labor in a great endeavor. The work bosses were at first reluctant to work with the Chinese, who looked puny to them. One said, "From what I've seen of them, they're not fit laborers anyway. I don't think they can build a railroad." (Steiner, 1979)
They were first given jobs white men refused to do. Foremen soon found that the Chinese made excellent workers. Within a few years, 90% of the laborers were from China (UP, 2002).
In spite of their tremendous efforts building railroads in the west, the Chinese laborers they were often subjected to tremendous prejudice, called "little yellow men, midgets and monkeys (Steiner, 1979). Sometimes the discrimination got ugly, and several times, Irish laborers set off blasts without warning the Chinese, causing serious injury. One day, a Chinese blasting crew did the same to the Irish, and the problem ended (Steiner, 1979).
After the Civil War, as railroads worked their way west, cattle ranching and mining operations expanded in the west as well, providing new opportunities for those ready to move west (Rapczynski, 2002).
Crossing the country with a railroad required using Native American lands. The Native Americans saw this as a threat and an invasion. They began attacking construction sites without warning, and the Union Pacific Company had to form its own army to deal with the problem. One of the construction bosses wrote, "In 1866 the country was systematically occupied... day and night, summer and winter..." (UP, 2002). The Union Pacific contacted General Sherman, then in charge of the military of the west, and Sherman mounted a campaign to end the railroad's "Indian problem" (UP, 2002). Sherman knew of the Native American dependence on the bison. The railroad split the herds, and railroad employees started systematically killing the bison, accelerating the decline of the bison on the plains. Once tracks were built, the railroads encouraged travelers to kill the bison "for sport" as the train traveled past herds (Rapczynski, 2002). The decline of the bison shortened the period of hostilities between the railroads and the Native Americans (UP, 2002).
Forming large railroad companies and build tracks that covered great expanses required tremendous financial backing. Until this time, business had not required such large amounts of capitol. But because the railroads were so important to the country, financial practices changed to accommodate the need. In turn, these financial changes affected smaller industries and smaller towns. For instance, the arrival of railroads in Lynn, Massachusetts, changed Lynn's shoemaking industry (Buck, 1998). Until the financial changes that accompanied railroad development, shoemaking had been a largely cottage industry that often worked on the barter system. The country did not yet have a national currency, and bank notes were not always honored outside their geographical area, which was small because it was difficult to travel long distances. With a railroad, it made sense to streamline and increase production for a larger market.
Until the railroad came to Lynn, smaller communities had difficulty getting business loans, which tended to go to businesses in the large cities (Buck, 1998). In the smaller towns and villages, business loans often began at an interest rate of 25% (Buck, 1998). The arrival of the railroad helped Lynn's economy in several ways. First, the railroad needed to purchase right-of-way for the tracks. This raised real estate values. In addition, the rail laborers lived in Lynn and spent most of their money there, improving the economy. In addition, citizens of Lynn became stockholders in the railroad company, and the railroads typically paid high dividends (Buck, 1998).
Another example of capitol coming into small towns was reported in the personal journal of a resident of Cambria County, PA, who recorded stock purchases of prominent citizens: "Nov. 11 - The Bluebaker Coal Co. was chartered with a capital of $500,000. Robert Coleman, the Lebanon millionaire, and Adjutant General Hastings and his law partner J.L. Spangler, both of Bellefonte, have each taken 1550 shares of the stock, and Gilbert A. Beaver, son of Governor Beaver, 490 shares." (Jencks, 1999) The train involved would be used to support coal mining, providing another ripple effect through the regional economy including employment, increased sale of raw materials, and increased land values (Buck, 1998).
In Lynn, local influence was used to change the intended route of the train. It was taken through a swamp owned by two brothers. The swamp was reclaimed as usable land, and sold to the railroad. The station was built on that land, and that encouraged other businesses to be built around it. The area soon became and important business and manufacturing area (Buck, 1998).
Another way the railroad changed economy was through the development of regional and national unions. Building trains required workers with a wide variety of skills including machinists, boilermakers, blacksmiths, sheet metal workers, electricians, carpenters, painters and laborers. As railroad companies consolidated and expanded, and as speed of communication improved across the country, larger unions comprised of members from a variety of trades and skills (Davis, 1997). Eventually, American railway workers belonged to one of the most powerful unions in the country. They struck multiple times, including a massive strike that began in 1922 and eventually involved over 400,000 workers. Because of the size of the union and the importance of…