The Transcontinental Railroad And Westward Expansion Essay

, 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

together (255).

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

transcontinental railroad.

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

colonial period.

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

House, 1992.

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.

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