, Research Paper
The Transcontinental Railroad and Westward Expansion
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 River.
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
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
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
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
“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
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 other.
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
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
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,
“Railroad.” Compton’s Encyclopedia. 1990 edition.
“United States of America.” The New Encyclop?dia Britannica. 1990 edition.