Transcontinental railroads in the USA

In previous posts we have seen how the two largest countries in the world, Russia and Canada, were to plan, construct and successfully manage transcontinental railways, a marvellous example of the skills, patience, endurance and sheer toughness of the human race.

By the early date of 1869, the United States had built 30,000 miles of railway in their territory. The Middle West was connected by four lines to the Atlantic coast (always known as ‘The Coast’ to Americans. But as agreement could not be reached, there was no continuation towards the Pacific coast. The North, winning side in the terrible Civil War, wanted a central route; the South wanted a southern route. This would probably ease the spread of slavery into new territories. In fact the Gadsden Purchase had been made in 1853 (before the War) which provided the southern route, but the fighting scotched that.

In 1862 Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act which chartered the privately-owned Union Pacific Railroad company to build west from Omaha (Nebraska), and the equally private Central Pacific Railroad to build lines east from Sacramento (California). Several already established rich families were to become rich beyond dreams of avarice.

Painting by Hugh Brown ahoswing an attack on the railway construction workers / nps.gov

Painting by Hugh Brown showing an attack on the railway construction workers / nps.gov

Only pioneers knew and understood the problems that would have to be overcome; the railways passed through infertile and uninhabited territory. Everything, including wood sleepers, rails, machinery and food and drink supplies had to be carried by wagon over immense distances; riflemen had to be hired on the Union Pacific to ward off savages who were probably the best horsemen in the world, deadly with the knife, bow and arrow, and rifles sold to them by whites. Luckily 90% of the workforce came from Irish immigrants, in their own way as tough and, in the end, more resilient than the Native American.

The Central Pacific using mostly Chinese labour had to traverse the Sierra Nevada at 7000 feet. The two lines met, in Utah, in 1869. As in Russia and Canada, it was a miracle of engineering, Construction and design had been funded by federal and state governments. By 1893 four transcontinental railways had been built, and all of them shot out branch lines, so that soon there was a North/ South as well as an East/West network. Americans tend to be bigger in every way, and by the year 1900 the States had nearly 195,000 miles of track.

If anything was responsible for the extraordinary speed of economic recovery after the Civil War it was the railways (known as ‘railroads’ in America). Settlement of the west was made possible by providing cheap land for settlers. The Federal Government handed over 131 million acres to the railway companies, which is more than the total land space in France and Germany. Towns, cities, homesteads, ranches, farms and factories grew rapidly on previously uninhabited plains. Well, ‘uninhabited’ depends on where you are looking from.

The railways accounted for the quick expansion of coal, iron and steel industries, which in turn provided, fuel, rails and rolling stock. The United States became a nation of town-dwellers.

Before, in 1860, five out of every six American whites lived on the plains. No longer dependent on overseas trade, the States rapidly became the greatest industrial nation in the world, eager for expansion and the spreading of the American way of life. By 1900 the US produced more coal than Britain, which had been at the top of the list for a very long time. She also produced more steel than Germany, and more wheat than Russia.

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