Growth of the Old Railroads
The growth of the railroad network made life different -- and better -- for almost everyone. When flour had to be hauled over the National Road from Wheeling, on the Ohio River in western Virginia, to Baltimore for export to Europe, the farmer was lucky to receive $1 a barrel. Wagon freight charges amounted to $4. After the B&O Railroad opened its main line to Wheeling in 1853, the price at the docks remained about the same, $5 or so. But the railroad charged only $1 to haul that barrel of flour the 380 miles over the mountains in one-tenth the time. The farmer pocketed $4, which in turn allowed him to purchase manufactured goods brought in from the East by railroad and to improve his farm for still higher yields.
These brief vignettes do not do justice to the change wrought by the railroad in the 30 years before the Civil War. In half a lifetime, this one technology helped push the extent of settlement a thousand miles westward. It made possible one national market, no matter how vast the continent. That market would arise only after the intense sectional rivalries had been settled by war, but even in the 1850s, western grain and cattle found ready buyers in the big cities of the East, while the railroad permitted the concentration of the steel industry in just a few eastern locations.
Railroads brought fresh food, fuel, and raw materials to the burgeoning cities, materially improving the quality of life for countless Americans. With the means for adequate transportation at hand, politicians seriously proposed an all-rail link across the country to California. Railroad development started simultaneously in dozens of isolated areas, all awaiting the completion of a national system.
Perhaps most important, those first decades of railroading in America changed people's perceptions about time, space, and their relationships with each other and their country. All across the land, people spoke of the way trains had accelerated and intensified life in America. Yet for most people, the railroad was good; it improved their lives and enhanced the opportunities that nature presented.
In the coming years, the nation would even see its railroads change the course of war, proving yet again how powerful the combination of iron, steam, and human determination could be.