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...
Bibliography: 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.
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