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Active Viewing: 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation

In this activity, students watch a short clip from the ASHP documentary 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation to learn about the impact of railroad expansion on Americans and the nation as a whole. After watching the clip, students complete the “Technological Turning Points and their Impact” worksheet in order to examine the positive and negative effects of the railroad.


Students will be able to describe the impact of the railroad on the United States, including which people benefitted from it and which did not.

Students will evaluate how and why the completion of the transcontinental railroad is considered a major turning point.

Students will be able to analyze the reasons why railroad workers decided to go on strike in 1877.


Step 1. Hand out the 1877 Viewer’s Guide and have a student(s) read the 3 paragraphs of text on page 1 under “What was ‘The Great Strike’ of 1877?” Tell students that they are going to watch a clip from a documentary about the causes of this national uprising. 

Hand out the 1877 Vocabulary list and review with the class. 

Step 2. Play the 1877 clip (1:50-7:02) once to provide an overview of the transcontinental railroad. Ask students to think about the overall tone of this documentary (ie. what is the attitude of this film towards the railroad during the Gilded Age?). 

Discuss why the tone sounds more critical than positive:  

• told from the perspective of workers rather than builders 

• is challenging a “triumphant” view of the railroad 

Step 3. Hand out the Technological Turning Points worksheet and 1877 script. Ask students, working individually or in small groups, to check off any of the effects that they think apply to the railroad (using Part 1 of the worksheet). They may use the 1877 script as a reference. 

Review the Part 1 list with the whole group. With the possible exception of “Allows for greater participation in democracy,” all of the items could be checked. For the less obvious effects, have students explain their reasoning. 

Tell students to complete Part II of the worksheet individually. Then, with a partner, they should identify:  

• the top 2 positive effects and top 2 negative effects  

• who benefited the most, and who was harmed the most 

Share out group responses.  

You may need to review the following points if they do not come up in discussion: 

• main positive effects included new jobs, easier to communicate and travel, boost to national pride  

• main negative effects included railroad owners get too much political power which leads to corruption; the railroad widens the gap between haves and have nots, and makes only a small group of people wealthy; workers are treated badly  

• railroad owners benefited the most; Native Americans, railroad workers, Chinese workers were among those who benefited the least. 

Step 4. Tell students that you are going to play the clip for a second time. Ask a third of the class to listen for the point of view of the railroad owners, a third for the role of state and federal governments, and a third for the point of view of railroad workers. Play clip (1:50-7:02) again. 

Share out discussion on railroad owners, the government, and railroad workers. 

Ask follow up questions as needed:  

• Who was the railroad supposed to benefit? [claim that it would “benefit all citizens”]  

• What assistance did the government give railroads? [land, money, tax breaks, political influence]  

• Why did workers go on strike in 1877?

Activity Extension

To highlight the worker’s viewpoint, you could hand out An African-American Socialist Lends His Support to Railroad Workers.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011. Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Active Viewing: 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 30, 2023,

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