Three forces reshaped the United States between 1860 and the end of the century. First was the Civil War; second was the continuing tide of westward expansion; third was the American Industrial Revolution. Common to all was the railroad. It not only enabled the preservation of the Union, but also permitted the kind of rapid industrialization that made the United States a world power.
The Civil War was the defining event for nineteenth-century America, and railroads played an important role in the conflict. As the North industrialized rapidly between 1820 and 1860, railroads helped create --and prospered from -- the rise of factory production and diversified large-scale agriculture.
In the South, railroads played a marginal role in the cotton and tobacco economy. With little industry to support them, the railroads that did crisscross the inland South were lightly built, often poorly maintained, and generally inferior to those in the North. In the end, the North's industrial superiority -- epitomized by its superb railroad system -- enabled it to pummel the Confederacy into submission.
Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis recognized the need for an effective railroad system in the war effort, and military men on both sides used railroads skillfully. The South, however, had neither the factories capable of building new locomotives in wartime nor the political will to forge the existing railroad network into a smoothly functioning system.
The North, on the other hand, quickly created the United States Military Railroad to expropriate and operate any railroad it needed. The Union Army appointed Daniel C. McCallum and Herman Haupt as ranking officers, giving them extraordinary powers to provide railroad support for northern troops.
Throughout the war, opposing forces recognized the tactical advantages of either controlling or destroying railroad supply lines. But it was not until Union General William Rosecrans found himself under siege at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1863 that leaders discovered the true strategic value of railroads.
Over the objections of cabinet members and even some generals, Lincoln approved a daring plan to send two entire Army corps on a circuitous rail route to reinforce Rosecrans. Despite the short notice and complexity of the plan, railroad convoys carried 20,000 men, their full equipment, ten batteries with horses, and more than 100 cars of baggage and supplies 1,100 miles in just seven days (11 days from idea to execution).
Fifteen months later, 17,000 men made the reverse movement in an equally timely fashion on their way to complete the Union victory at Richmond, Virginia. War would never be the same again, for the railroad had proved to be a powerful military weapon as well as an agent of civilization.
The Pacific Railroad Act
As the Civil War intensified, Lincoln and the country wrestled with the question of how to connect the existing railroad network in the Midwest with California. During the spring of 1862, the House and Senate passed the Pacific Railroad Act, authorizing land grants and loans varying from $16,000 per mile of flat prairie railroad to $48,000 per mile of difficult mountain track. That made the project a "pay-as-you-go" program, creating wealth out of the very land made accessible by the railroad.
In California, four transplanted Yankee businessmen -- Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins -- formed the Central Pacific Railroad to begin carving a path for the iron horse through the granite Sierra and the hauntingly beautiful high desert of Nevada. Meanwhile, Congress incorporated the Union Pacific Railroad to build a line from the Missouri River to a connection with the Central Pacific.
There was nothing technologically novel about the project. Railroad engineering by that time was well understood, and the hardware available "off the shelf." It was the sheer scale of the endeavor that was audacious, as virtually every scrap of iron and tool for both railroads had to be hauled thousands of miles to the remote railheads. On the Central Pacific line, almost everything came by ship -- a 17,000-mile journey around Cape Horn. But the race was on, and each railroad became so proficient that it sometimes laid more than five miles of track a day at the rate of 2,500 ties, 350 rails, 10,000 spikes, and 3,400 bolts per mile-every one put in place by hand.
But whose hands?
Western Railroad Labor
Because of a labor shortage in the West, the Central Pacific hired Chinese immigrants as laborers, finding them to be such skilled, diligent, and efficient railroad builders that the CP began recruiting workers from southern China. At one point, more than 14,000 men were at work on the CP -- mostly Chinese, along with a handful of Irish- and American-born railroaders. They battled incredible winter snows, granite that yielded only grudgingly to black powder, and some of the roughest terrain on the continent.
On the Union Pacific, Irish and other European immigrants joined former Confederates, Union veterans, and anyone else who could work from sunup to sundown for a dollar or two per day. The men ate beef, bread, and pie; liquids were limited to bad whiskey, boiled coffee, and whatever water was at hand. Ferocious summer heat, terrific storms, and sporadic Indian attacks made hard physical work even worse.
As the tracks advanced farther away from civilization, portable towns dubbed "Hell on Wheels" followed the UP railhead, providing women, gambling, cheap liquor, and the roughest amenities. Some, like Cheyenne, Wyoming, became permanent towns, transforming themselves into respectable communities. Others disappeared without a trace.
The ceremony marking the connection of the two railroads at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, was small and simple. The Union Pacific had built 1,086 miles of main line; the Central Pacific, 690 miles. After prayers, speeches, and placement of the last rails, dignitaries took turns gently tapping gold and silver spikes into a pre-drilled laurel tie. The estimated 600 men and women gathered at the site cheered as the telegraph flashed the news to an anxiously waiting country: Done! Across the United States, Americans cheered what they regarded as the most important project of their lifetimes -- and a sure sign of the prosperity to come.
National Railroad System
The Central Pacific and Union Pacific were not long without competitors. In 1864, President Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad from the upper Great Lakes to the Pacific Northwest. A generous land grant of nearly 60 million acres provided collateral for construction mortgages and new lands for Easterners and immigrants hungry for a new life. A lavish gold-spike ceremony marked the completion of this second transcontinental railroad on September 8, 1883.
Just ten years later the indomitable James J. Hill completed the parallel Great Northern Railway, built to the highest standards without government subsidy. It also linked Chicago and the Great Lakes with the forests, farms, and ports of Oregon and Washington. Both railroads reached up into Canada, providing an impetus for the construction of a true Canadian transcontinental.
By the time Canada attained partial independence from Great Britain in 1867, it had a little less than 2,500 miles of track, mostly in the East. The American transcontinental railroads posed a real threat to the young Dominion of Canada, for its western provinces -- most notably British Columbia -- demanded the completion of a true Canadian cross-continent railroad as a condition of continued participation in the confederation.
After a few false starts, the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1881 began an astounding push west across the Canadian Rockies that would tie the two oceans with yet another rail route in just four years. A poster celebrating the 1885 feat summed up Canada's feelings: "A Red Letter Day . . . Our Own Line . . . No Customs, No Delays, No Transfers, Low Rates, Quick Time." As in the United States, the railroad helped make Canada one country.
Throughout the 1880s, another round of railroad fever swept the United States, as Chicago claimed the title of "Railroad Capital of the World" and former frontier outposts such as Denver and Kansas City became bustling railroad centers. Before long, the reach of railroads provided a truly nationwide market for industrial and agricultural goods, allowing regional economic specialization. For example, steel-making concentrated in the area around Pittsburgh, while the Northern Plains states engaged in large-scale grain production.
Southern railroads worked hard to rebuild so they could connect with the burgeoning national system. At the end of May of 1886, every railroad in the South not built to standard gauge made a marathon effort to change tracks, cars, and locomotives to the national standard of 4' 8½". Over a few days, thousands of men shifted rails and moved wheels on their axles to make it possible for true car interchange throughout the nation.
Mineral wealth in the West lured iron rails to the most remote and inaccessible corners of the land. Between 1860 and 1890, Nevada's Comstock Lode alone yielded $340 million in gold and silver. Railroads carried machinery and consumer goods in, ore and metal out, and thousands of treasure seekers in both directions.
Gen. William Jackson Palmer built a Colorado railroad empire to the innovative gauge of three feet between the rails. By century's end, narrow-gauge tracks reached across the Continental Divide at elevations in excess of 10,000 feet to link remote mountain mining towns like Monarch, Ouray, Telluride, and Aspen with cosmopolitan Denver.
Gold also spurred impressive feats of railroad construction in Montana and Idaho, Eventually, less glamorous (but equally valuable) metals such as lead, copper, and nickel, supplemented the boom-and-bust precious metals economy and made yet another generation of miners and railroaders wealthy.
Railroads also opened up the Southwest, where men sought fortunes in cattle, cotton, and wheat. The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway completed a through-line from Chicago to the Pacific coast in 1884, the same year Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford-two of the "Big Four" who built the Central Pacific-finished the Southern Pacific Railroad from Los Angeles to New Orleans. Finally, the main lines envisioned by the Pacific Railroad Act of 1854 were in place. At about that time, Yankee railroaders turned their attention to Mexico.
Early Mexican Railroads
Neither the culture nor the economy of Mexico favored the development of railroads, nor was the dry, mountainous country hospitable to the iron horse. The country's first attempt at railroad building began in the mid-1840s; 40 years later, less than 400 miles of track were in service. Mexican President Porfirio Diaz set out to change that in 1880, offering concessions to U.S. companies willing to fund and build Mexican railroads. Over the next few decades, rail lines gradually radiated from Mexico City to connect interior points with the U.S. railroad network at Nogales, Arizona, and the Texas towns of Laredo and El Paso.
Many Mexican railroads were in fact controlled by American and British companies, which operated them primarily for north-south commerce. In the traditional agrarian economy of Mexico, railroads did not have the same transforming effect that the railroads of the north did. Only in the twentieth century would Mexico's railroad network come into its own as a genuine national system.
Americans traveled more than Europeans even before the coming of the railroad. After the Civil War, they created the most mobile society the world had ever known. But it was not without risk or accident. Until the 1850s, serious railroad accidents had been relatively rare, and the few that did occur -- such as the 1853 Norwalk disaster, in which a train ran through an open drawbridge, killing 45 persons -- usually were the result of a combination of human error and unusual circumstances. That changed as the general pace of life in America accelerated and trains became faster, longer, and more frequent, reducing the margin for error.
The public responded with increasing alarm to railway disasters such as the 1871 Revere, Massachusetts, collision, which killed 29 and seriously injured many more, and the Ashtabula, Ohio, wreck of 1876, which left 80 dead. Even though steamboat accidents killed many more passengers, they were thought to be acts of God. Railroad wrecks were sensational and thought to be examples of human failure or the consequences of corporate greed. It took railroads several decades to improve train-control practices and adopt safety devices sufficient to make railroad travel truly safe.
Eli Janney, a Civil War veteran and store clerk in Alexandria, Virginia, conceived and patented the first "knuckle" coupler in 1868. His design, the basis for the couplers of today, resembled two hands clasped together when joined. Able to close and lock automatically, they could be opened from the side of the car, greatly reducing the number and severity of casualties suffered by brakemen using the treacherous link-and-pin couplers. By the 1890s, there were many different styles of so-called Janney couplers in use, but many of them would not join with each other. A prudent conductor might have to carry a dozen different spare "knuckles" on his caboose.
In 1869, George Westinghouse patented his first air brake. By 1873, he had developed the triple valve, the key component in the creation of an "automatic" air brake. Instead of using compressed air directly from the locomotive to provide the force for pressing brake shoes against the wheels, his system placed a reservoir of air under each car and charged them from a continuous brake pipe linked to the locomotive. That way, if the air pump failed or the train parted, air stored on each car could apply the brakes automatically -- an especially useful fail-safe feature.
During competitive trials in 1887-1888, the Westinghouse design proved so superior that it was made the universal standard. It was adopted early for passenger trains, but it took an act of Congress (the Railway Safety Appliance Act of 1893) to force the railroads to speed its application to freight trains. The air brake was perhaps the most important single railroad invention of the period.
George Pullman, who had vastly improved the quality of sleeping and dining cars, popularized the vestibule for passenger cars beginning in 1887. Previously, cars had open platforms, making it dangerous to cross from car to car when the train was in motion. The vestibule enclosed the platform and joined the cars with the familiar flexible-canvas diaphragm, making the train into one continuous unit and encouraging the development of specialized lounge, dining, and other cars.
A German tinsmith by the name of Julius Pintsch devised a lighting system based on compressed petroleum gas. It gave brighter light with less smoke than the old kerosene lamps. Advances in hygiene (water coolers, flush toilets), comfort (window screens, larger and better-ventilated berths), and safety (anti-telescoping devices, stronger wheels) made rail travel more safe and comfortable for all passengers.
Freight trains grew longer and more productive, with larger cars operating at higher speeds. Coal drags might still be run at a leisurely 15 miles per hour by the 1890s, but perishable freight such as fruit and livestock might wheel along at 40 or even 50 miles per hour. Throughout the 1860s and '70s, railroads adopted the caboose, giving brakemen and the conductor some shelter and safety, and in the process creating a symbol of American railroading. The increasing use of iron and steel in freight cars, as well as new types of cars -- such as tank cars for the transport of petroleum used to make lamp fuel -- dramatically changed the very nature of freight transportation. By the last quarter of the century, it was possible to ship almost anything, almost anywhere, by rail.
Locomotives, too, grew larger and more sophisticated. A new generation of trained mechanics and engineers virtually reinvented the locomotive and made railroading the "high technology" of its day. The highly decorated wood-burning 4-4-0s of the Civil War evolved by 1900 into starkly black, no-nonsense coal-burning behemoths weighing twice as much. By 1900, builders in the United States, Canada, and Mexico had turned out more than 70,000 locomotives of all shapes, sizes, and types.
Elijah McCoy was one of several black inventors and mechanics active in the railroad industry. Advertising for the mechanical lubricator he developed gave us the expression "the real McCoy." Other inventors relentlessly pursued the quest for more power, more speed, and greater efficiency. Railroading was an industry in which small economies added up over the long haul, so the locomotive was subject to constant tinkering.
In the turbulent 1870s and 1880s, people throughout the United States came to regard railroads with a mixture of admiration and hatred. The Credit Mobilier scandal provides but one example. Certain officers of the Union Pacific formed a separate construction company to raise capital and ensure that influential backers received a suitable return on their investment -- which in one year alone totaled 348 percent. Investigations held after the scandal broke in 1872 revealed that key congressmen had accepted Credit Mobilier stock as a gratuity. Ulysses S. Grant and future President James A. Garfield were among those implicated.
Rate wars and rate discrimination were other examples of the railroads "not playing fair." In a vicious cycle leading some railroads to near-ruin, competing lines would undercut each other's rates to capture traffic. Conversely, railroads often charged whatever the traffic would bear, without regard for what seemed reasonable to the traveler or shipper. Some companies granted rebates or kickbacks to powerful shippers such as John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil.
The unfairness of these practices so enraged the public that Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 to bring some order to the unruly industry. This marked the first time the federal government attempted the direct regulation of American business.
19th-Century Railroad Labor Issues
Railroads also varied between fairness and harshness in their dealings with their workers. Some executives believed in paying a living wage and accepted the right of employees to form labor organizations and bargain collectively. Others took the view that labor was a commodity to be purchased at the lowest cost without regard for the individuals involved.
The economic depression of the 1870s brought these practices into sharp relief, when the Pennsylvania Railroad and other roads in 1877 reduced wages by 10 percent while preserving dividend payments. Train and engine crews went on strike in protest, and violence flared as state militias were dispatched to keep the trains running. So great was workers' hostility towards the Pennsylvania Railroad that riot damage to its property totaled more than $2 million.
The social discontent revealed by the Strike of 1877 frightened leaders and citizens alike. Serious strikes in 1888 and 1894 further polarized railroad labor and management, as they revealed the human cost of laissez-faire capitalism and rapid industrialization.
Throughout the period, crafty railroad promoters manipulated Wall Street and found ingenious ways to fleece investors. Rascals such as Daniel Drew, who bled the Erie Railroad of tens of millions of dollars, gave rise to the term "Robber Baron" and personified corporate America to the average worker.
In fairness, it should be noted that most executives were honest and sincerely interested in building their companies. And although railroading created millionaires at a fantastic pace, many railroad fortunes were the basis for great philanthropic works. Stanford University, The Johns Hopkins Hospitals, and art museums throughout the country are just some of the institutions created from the bequests of nineteenth-century railroad leaders.
As the country emerged from the Civil War, perhaps 150,000 men and women worked for railroads, with thousands more (no one knows how many) engaged in collateral work. By 1900, the number of railroad employees exceeded one million, with tens of thousands making a living in related fields, such as producing railway supplies. These railroaders were men and women of all races, faiths, and political persuasions.
There was discrimination, to be sure. Blacks and Latinos could be firemen but not engineers; skilled trades and union membership were open to a select few; sometimes jobs were assigned on the basis of religion; and the most recent immigrants usually held the dirtiest, most hazardous, and lowest-paying jobs. The railroad was a mirror of American society at large, with all of its imperfections and opportunities, but it was also a tool for nation-building.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the task of carrying immigrants to their new homes. Some railroads actually employed agents in Europe to recruit entire families and villages to settle the vast tracts of farmable land served by the company's tracks. Other lines provided special trains to meet the ships that brought more than 8 million new Americans into the country between 1870 and 1900. Almost 789,000 immigrants arrived in 1882 alone, and most journeyed at least some distance by rail. The extensive reach of the railroad network meant that these new Americans could spread throughout the country, rather than concentrating in the eastern cities. Railroads, in effect, stirred the melting pot.
The Impact of Railroad Expansion
The steel highway improved the lives of millions of city dwellers. By the 1890s, the United States was becoming an urban nation, and railroads supplied cities and towns with food, fuel, building materials, and access to markets. The simple presence of railroads could bring a city economic prosperity. Railroads even helped shape the physical growth of cities and towns, as steam railroads and then electric street railways facilitated growth along their lines and made suburban living feasible.
Mail, sorted enroute aboard Railway Post Office (RPO) Cars, permitted reliable and rapid communication. Railway express and the rise of mail-order merchants permitted people in the most remote rural areas to enjoy inexpensive consumer goods. Telegraphy and railroading had been inseparable since the beginning, and virtually everywhere there was a railroad, there was a telegraph wire.
In 1893, the United States celebrated the 400th anniversary of the "discovery" of the New World with a spectacular fair in Chicago. The Transportation Building at the "World's Columbian Exposition" featured railroad exhibits and equipment from around the world, but the most lavish displays were from Baldwin Locomotive Works, the Pullman Palace Car Company, and other American companies. The B&O erected a huge exhibit tracing the entire history of the railroad, while the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads had separate exhibit buildings.
The world's fair marks the high point of the railroad in American life. By the mid-1890s, almost the entire North American transport network was oriented around the 200,000 miles of track extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific and also connecting with substantial networks in the neighboring countries of Canada and Mexico.
By then, New York Central's Empire State Express had exceeded 100 miles per hour on its runs to Chicago, leaving no doubt about rail travel's potential for speed. As for comfort, Pullman cars of the day rivaled the finest hotels for the level of service and creature comforts provided. Railroads offered convenience, taking travelers across the continent in less than a week-or down branch lines to the most remote Appalachian hamlet in a matter of days.
In the West, railroads helped open new territory to economic exploitation, and then played a large part in the creation of the first national parks. They also pioneered modern forms of hotels, resorts, and restaurants. As the nineteenth century ebbed, every aspect of society and culture was reflected in the railroad. When the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was legal, railroads in the South responded with "Jim Crow" cars having "separate, but equal," accommodations. There also were special Temperance Movement trains, as well as excursions promoting the vote for women.
Americans celebrated the railroad in song, literature, and art. The fledgling motion-picture industry turned its hand-cranked cameras on speeding trains because they were the most exciting things on wheels. Virtually every form of entertainment traveled by rail, from the latest popular magazines to touring circuses and New York theater companies.
By 1900, the people of Canada, Mexico, and the United States had settled a vast continent that the best minds of Thomas Jefferson's day thought would take a thousand years to occupy. Largely because of railroads, it took only a few decades.
Railroad Expansion Timeline
The Civil War causes unprecedented traffic for northern railroads, destruction of most southern railroads, and new appreciation for railroads' capabilities.
Twelve enginemen form the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the first successful railroad labor organization.
Confederate veteran Eli Janney patents a design for an automatic knuckle coupler, the basis for today's standard couplers.
The Union Pacific Railroad meets the Central Pacific Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah, forming a continuous railroad line from coast to coast.
Gen. William Jackson Palmer organizes the Denver & Rio Grande Railway.
George Westinghouse perfects the triple valve and the automatic air brake.
On November 18, "The Day of Two Noons," when railroads (and many cities) adopt Standard Railway Time -- the basis for our time zones today.
The Canadian Pacific Railway completes Canada's first transcontinental line.
The Interstate Commerce Act becomes effective, marking the first federal regulation of railroads.
A record total of 12,876 miles of track is laid in the United States; the amount would never be surpassed.
The Railway Safety Appliance Act is signed into law, improving worker safety over the next two decades.
New York Central locomotive 999 sets an unofficial speed record of 112.5 mph-supposedly the first time man exceeded 100 mph.
A strike at the Pullman Palace Car Company spreads nationwide.
General Electric installs the first mainline railroad electrification in America on the B&O in Baltimore.