The Advantages of the Transcontinental Railroad

by Exa von Alt

It took six years to lay more than 2,000 miles of railroad track, but on May 10, 1869, workers drove the last spike of the transcontinental railroad in Promontory Summit, Utah. While the coming of the railroad meant death and destruction for native people, as one of the greatest achievements of the age the railroad brought significant advantages to American settlers.

Ease of Travel & Communication

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

The transcontinental railroad connected the nation as never before: A trip from New York to San Francisco that once took months by wagon or ship now took a week at a tenth of the cost. Efficient travel helped knit the nation together -- Americans began to view the entire expanse, from coast to coast, as their nation, united by a common culture. Books written on one coast were read on the other; inventions created on the Great Plains were discussed in Boston.

Westward Settlement

A 19th century church in the middle of the priaries.

Ambitious Americans had always looked West for new opportunities, particularly after the Homestead Act in 1862 offered the prospect of free land. Now thousands more took advantage of the easier journey by rail and rushed to settle the vast expanse of the nation. Towns and cities grew up around the railroads, providing transportation and trade hubs, and bringing people to what was once nothing but prairie and desert. The 1890 census declared the end of the American "frontier" -- the nation was settled from coast to coast.

Economic Expansion

A boxcar filled with coal.

The transcontinental railroad transformed the American economy. The railroad rapidly shipped resources such as coal, timber, precious metals and even cattle from west to east and opened up new markets for the goods produced in eastern factories. Huge cities like Chicago emerged as industrial hubs from which to send western raw materials east, and eastern products to the west. By 1880, the railroad shipped $50 million worth of products from coast to coast every year. Finally, one railroad sparked the growth of dozens of other lines, many of them competing with each other for customers.

Technological Innovation

A train's suspension system.

Finally, the railroad encouraged innovation. As competing railroad enterprises emerged, each strove to outdo the others. This led to improvements in every part of the railroad, from the engines to the rails themselves -- switching from iron to stronger, more durable steel. Determined to make a larger profit with his cattle business, Gustavus Swift hired someone to invent the first refrigerated rail car to ship slaughtered cattle to eastern markets. For safety and efficiency, railroads improved their braking and suspension systems. Such innovations changed not only the railroad but also many other industries.

About the Author

Based in Dallas, Exa von Alt has been working in education and the social sciences for nearly 10 years. Her lesson plans are published on the University of Oklahoma's K20ALT website and she has written several entries in "American Centuries: The Ideas, Issues, and Trends that Made U.S. History"(MTM Publishing). Exa von Alt holds a Master of Arts in history from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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