Railroads Open the West
(Be sure to look up any words you do not know.)


Congress wanted a rail line that would cross the continent. To build that transcontinental rail line, railroad tracks would have to be laid thousands of miles across the West. The Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroad companies were chosen to do the job.

The Union Pacific Railroad started from Omaha, Nebraska. Most of its workers were Irish immigrants. They laid tracks across the flat Plains and across the rugged Rocky Mountains.

The Central Pacific started work at the other end of the line, in Sacramento, California. Its workers were mostly Chinese immigrants. They cut a route through the Sierra Nevada and across the hot deserts of Nevada.

On May 10, 1869, the tracks of the two railroads came together at Promontory, Utah. For the first time, people could travel by train from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

Other railroad lines were soon built. By 1893, five transcontinental railroad lines were carrying people to the unsettled areas in the West.


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In the years after the Civil War, railroad building became the nation's biggest business. By 1900 there were nearly six times as many miles of track as in 1865.

Because of government help, western railroads were big from the start. In contrast, the large rail systems of the East were formed by combining smaller companies that had been started earlier. For instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt created the New York Central system by buying smaller railroads across the eastern half of the country. By 1873 the New York Central was providing direct rail service between New York City and Chicago.

Two other systems that tied together eastern and midwestern cities were the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltimore and Ohio. Meanwhile, the Southern Railway linked Washington, D.C., with such southern cities as New Orleans.

By 1893 there were five transcontinental railroad routes. Compared to the spider­web look of eastern railways, the western railways were straighter. They pointed across deserts, prairies, and mountains on their way to Pacific Coast cities.  The map below illustrates this point:


Impact of the Railroads:  How did the railroads change American history?

  1. The railroads helped end Indian control of the West. The Plains Indians, across whose lands the railroads cut like knives, fought this invasion, but in vain. Indian fears were justified. The railroads brought the buffalo hunters, miners, and settlers who would destroy their world.

  2. The railroads tied together the economies of the West and East. From the West, the railroads carried eastward such raw mate­rials as lumber, minerals, livestock, and grain. In midwestern cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Cleveland, the raw materials were processed. Grain was milled into flour. Hogs became bacon and hams. Cattle became beef. Iron ore was converted into steel. Lumber was cut into wood for housing. The processed goods were shipped by rail to eastern cities. From eastern cities, in turn, came manufactured goods, which were sold to westerners.


    By turning the nation into a single giant marketplace, the railroads helped the growth of American industry. They also spurred the growth of those cities connected by railways.

  3. The railroads helped people settle and farm the plains and valleys of the West. The cattle and wheat these people raised would feed the cities. Many of these farm families had moved west with dreams of indepen­dence. Yet they often found themselves at the mercy of outside forces. Railroad companies controlled their ability to move their crops and the cost of transporting them. Eastern buyers determined how much they would pay for the crops.

  4. Railroads changed the way people thought about the environment. Until the age of railroads, people lived and worked mainly where there was water transport, such as rivers or the sea. Roads were primitive, following valleys from town to town. Snow, ice, rain, and floods could close down both water and road transportation. It was hard to keep to a schedule in the face of such hazards.

    Railroads were different. Engineers and surveyors laid out the railroads in almost straight lines between cities. Railroads made possible cities like Denver, Colorado, and Cheyenne, Wyoming. These cities had no water transport at all.

    Climate, too, had little effect on the trains. In summer storm and winter snow, in cold and in heat, the trains kept moving, delivering passengers and goods on time. Schedules became part of American life.

    Railroads even broke free of what was called "sun time." Formerly wherever people had lived, noon was the time when the sun was highest in the sky. This system cre­ated a nightmare for the people who set railroad schedules.

    At first the railroads set up "railroad time" along sections of the track. These time zones were so local, however, there were about 100 of them in 1883.

    To deal with this problem, the railroads agreed to a system of standard time. They divided the United States into four time zones. Although the plan went into effect on November 18, 1883, many com­munities refused to accept it. Congress itself did not adopt the scheme until 1918. Today the country is divided into six time zones, the four original ones plus Alaska Time and Hawaii-Aleutian Time.

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THE TASK: Use your historical imagination to...

Create a page for a scrapbook about western settlement titled, "Railroads."  Use information from the reading and videos above, your textbook, and your notes.

Your page must include...