The Transcontinental Railroad, Change and challenge
The completion of the monumental task of building almost 1,800 miles of track in the late 1860s had a dramatic impact on the future of the United States. According to James P. Ronda, co-author of The West the Railroads Made, “What the Transcontinental Railroad did was bring the West into the world, and the world into the West.” Several changes occurred in rather short order.
Travel times — In an article prepared by Erin Blakemore for History.com, the Transcontinental Railroad “reduced a travel time [between Iowa, Nebraska and California] from about six months by wagon or twenty-five days by stagecoach to just four days.”
Travel costs — In economic terms, previously, a stage coach trip could cost as much as $1,000 but the new railroad first-class ticket cost $134.50. Suddenly, long distance travel was not something one could only do once, one-way in a lifetime as it was for earlier pioneers who left the safety of civilization to start over in the West, knowing they would never be able to afford to return.
Transport of goods — The same could be said for the transportation of freight. The West had raw materials that the East badly needed and the East manufactured finished products desperately needed in the West. Production of goods increased so rapidly that the new raw materials and finished goods supplies were in demand overseas and the U.S. became an international trader of goods. Henry W. Brands, author of Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West states for History.com. that the improved transportation of goods “gave the United States the single largest market in the world, which provided the basis for the rapid expansion of American industry and agriculture to the point where, [by the 1890s] the U.S. … had the most powerful economy on the planet.” Not long after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, young entrepreneur Aaron Montgomery Ward started a mail-order business utilizing a catalogue rather than numerous shops to interest customers in a variety of products.
Timekeeping — In addition to greater freedom of travel and ease of transport, the new railroad necessitated use of a standard time clock across the country. Prior to that, every community formed its own time zone which created troublesome if not deadly issues for rail lines. The government finally adopted national time zones as a result.
Government’s role in growth and development — Finally, it became obvious, even to many states-rights legislators, that certain large-scale projects were too large to be completed solely by individuals and needed the support of the federal government to be completed. Limited regulation would be another outgrowth of this awareness.
These changes allowed families to venture west to fulfill the “American Dream” beyond the borders of the early states ~ including Patrick and Catherine Callaway and several other real-life characters in my historical fiction Eagle Rock Trilogy.
But with these changes came devastating challenges. Just a few of the negative impacts on the people and landscape include: western forests were stripped clean to construct the railroad and build towns and industry; large numbers of hunters gained easy sport hunting access to western game needed for Native American survival; and, although the need for labor to build the railroad provided jobs for many immigrants to America, once the railroad construction was complete, these same people competed for jobs with American citizens which caused a rise in racial conflicts.
Part 2 of this post will discuss more of this story.