Friday, April 8, 2011

What was the role of the railroads in the settlement of the Great West?

"Railroad iron is a magician's rod in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water" (Ralph Waldo Emerson). By 1860 it became obvious the railroad was to become the mode of transportation of the industrial America, meeting the transportation needs of a maturing economy. However, the railroad was not only transportation means, but also a new technology vouching to change the world by shaping the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest. Its completion in 1869 laid the basis of economic exploitation of the Great Plains, stimulated the economic growth of the Union, increasing the settlers’ population and the jobs, while forever changing the life of the Native Americans living here. The railroads linked the newly acquired Pacific territories to the Union.

The railroads brought the West into the world and the world to the West. In the words of the Washington Territory governor Marshall F. Moore, the railroads were a “vast machinery for the building up of empires”. They transformed the West into a permanent extension of the modern world, bringing thousands of immigrants and changing the structure of human population in the area, promoting a large scale mining, ranching, agriculture, and the building of bridges, tunnels, depots, roundhouses etc. The presence of depots, for example, allowed the distribution of the latest newspapers and long distance mail. The prairies were plowed and transformed into farmland, and new plants were introduced.


The changes brought by the railroads happened very fast. They were of course harsh on the native population, disturbing their settlements and their activities, such as the buffalo hunting, and increasing the count of the white people in the area. However, these changes were positive for the new nation of the United States.

Henretta, James A. and David Brody. America: A Concise History, Volume II: Since 1877. 4th ed., Boston: Bedford/ St. Martin’s, 2010, 471, 497-499.

Orsi, Richard J. The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005.

Schwantes, Carlos A., Ronda, James P. The West the Railroads Made. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2008

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