Trains offer an efficient way to move goods over long distances. Over a third of all freight transport happens via the railway system, but our railroads have not always been as expansive as they are today. Now, we have hundreds of thousands of miles of rail connecting major cities across the country, but this was not the case two hundred years ago. The transcontinental railroad was built in the 1800s to connect Council Bluffs, Iowa, with the San Francisco Bay and revolutionize transport in the U.S.
Origin of the Transcontinental Railroad
The 1850s were a time of westward expansion for the United States. The California Gold Rush and Nevada Silver Rush pushed U.S. Americans further and further west with the promise of economic prosperity. In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Bill and several grants that allowed financial support for the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies. These two companies then began constructing what would become the transcontinental railroad.
Social and Economic Impacts
Travel was obviously one of the aspects of U.S. life most impacted by the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Before the railroad, it took almost six months and cost $1000 to travel between California and New York. After the transcontinental railroad was completed, it cost $150 and took one week. For the first time, U.S. Americans could freely travel from coast to coast. This radically changed both business and pleasure travel.
Easier transcontinental business travel allowed direct growth through expanding markets and cheaper distribution, as well as increased possibilities for partnerships and exchange of ideas. This movement between coasts allowed for business professionals to have a more expansive idea of their industry and allowed improved access to information and skills.
Within ten years of the transcontinental railroad’s competition, it was already shipping $50 million worth of freight from coast to coast every year. A marked production boom occurred as resources had faster transport to industrial settings, thus speeding up the process of making goods.
Despite the benefits it brought to the U.S., the transcontinental railroad had some negative consequences. Most starkly, the forced relocation of Native Americans from their lands resulted in widespread destruction of Native American cultures and ways of life. Many conflicts arose as the railroad project continued westward, and the military was brought in to fight Native American tribes. In addition, many natural resources were destroyed to make way for the expanding train tracks and stations.
Current State of the U.S. Railroad System
Currently, the U.S. freight rail network has over 140,000 rail miles in operation. This system employees at least 221,000 people throughout the country and is a large part of our transportation industry. For the most part, freight moves through the U.S. by rail and truck, with rail making up 39.50% of shipments.
Our economy depends on our railroad system, but it would not look the way it does today without the construction of the transcontinental railroad. From the 1800s to today, train transport continues to shape our economic and social lives.