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Background Essay on Building the Railroads

This essay explains how railroads transformed late-nineteenth century America and shows how their impact was felt differently across class and racial lines.

The railroad, a symbol of both progress and peril, spurred rapid and far-reaching changes in late nineteenth century American society. Supported by government funds, railroad building boomed after the Civil War. There were only 2,000 miles of track in 1850; by 1877 there were nearly 80,000 miles in use. Crossing the wilderness, carrying people and freight at unheard-of speeds, the railroads changed the ways Americans thought and lived. As distant cities and towns were linked together, Americans increasingly identified themselves as citizens of a whole nation, not merely a single state. For the first time, people in different parts of the country could read the same news and buy the same products. Such basic concepts as time and distance took on new meanings—in 1883, the railroads forced America to adopt its first national time zones. The railroads accelerated the pace of the Industrial Revolution. New technologies, such as machine building and iron and steel production, advanced to meet the demands of railroad growth. By providing cheaper and faster freight delivery, the railroads helped create a new national market.

While the completion of the transcontinental railroad paved the way for exponential growth in the population and economy of the West and the nation, it also caused significant harm to many people. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Over the next twenty years, railroads carried farmers and ranchers who settled on the Great Plains, soldiers who fought Indians wars, and hunters who killed buffalo for sport and profit. The farmers, ranchers, soldiers, and buffalo hunters, together with businessmen who came to develop the West's mineral and lumber resources, spelled destruction for the Great Plains Indians and their way of life. Working men and women were crucial to the growth of the railroads and the new industrial system, but they shared in few of its rewards. Railway workers labored an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week. Sometimes they worked 16 to 20 hours without a rest. Their average wage was $2.50 a day. Railroad work was difficult and dangerous, and in 1877 a nationwide rebellion of railroad workers brought the United States to a standstill. Eighty thousand railroad workers walked out, joined by hundreds of thousands of Americans outraged by the excesses of the railroad companies and the misery of a four-year economic depression. Police, state militia, and federal troops clashed with strikers and sympathizers, leaving more than one hundred dead and thousands injured. 

Creator | American Social History Project
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.Creative Commons License
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project, “Background Essay on Building the Railroads,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 23, 2023,

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