Travelling and transporting goods were very inconvenient before railroads were built in 19th-century. According to Stephen Slavin, “Before railroads, shipping a ton of goods 400 miles could easily quadruple the price. But by rail, the same ton of goods could be shipped in a fraction of the time and onetwentieth of the cost. “1. These made the economies of the American West bad and difficult to improve. John Steele Gordon describes it as: “there really was no “American economy. ” Instead there was a myriad of local ones.
Most food was consumed locally, and most goods were locally produced by artisans such as blacksmiths. The railroads changed all that in less than 30 years. “2 This implies that the development of the railroad had very important impacts on the American West economy as it played a vital role in making travelling and transporting goods easy and convenient. In the first half of the 19th-century, in rapid succession, the technological innovations in transportation and communication wrenched America out of its economic past.
An economic transformation known to historians as the market revolution swept over the United States during that time. The steamboat, canal, railroad, and telegraph were the catalyst for the economic transformation. These innovations helped open new land for settlement, dramatically reduced transportation costs, and made it far easier for economic enterprises to sell their products. They linked farmers to national and world markets and made them major consumers of manufactured goods. Alexis de Tocqueville, the French historian and politician, wrote these innovations had annihilated space and time of America3.
Since railroad was included in the list of the technology developed in the 19thcentury, it became one of the biggest contributor to the economic revolution that happened during the time period. The transportation and communication advancements have led more people to move west which resulted in the rise of the West as a powerful, self-conscious region of the new nation. At first, only few people traveled west as lone pioneers, but after that, more people migrated to the west in groups and establish communities once they arrived. As this happened, the western population experienced extraordinary growth especially for the cities that stood at the crossroads of inter-regional trade. The Iroad was the major reason for the increase of the population as it opened vast new areas of the American interior to settlement.
As a result of the population growth, Eric Foner points out that “urban merchants, bankers, and master craftsmen took advantage of the economic opportunities created by the expanding market among commercial farmers. 5 The drive among these businessmen to increase production and reduce labor costs fundamentally affect the American economy. The existence of the railroads have improved the American economy in the 19th century by making mass production, mass marketing and mass consumption possible. Mass production allowed the manufactures to create huge quantity of any products at a low cost per unit. When railway network enabled manufacturers to sell their products all over the country, it became feasible for them to invest in heavy machinery and to increase volume production, which resulted in low prices.
As the prices were lowered, the sales improved, and it encouraged the manufacturers to make further investment and create more jobs. 6 The abundant job opportunities led to high demands for labor. These jobs were then filled by immigration from abroad, which allowed the manufacturers to lower the wages and at the same time, reduce the labor cost. Moreover, the productivity also raised due to the mass production. This is important because, as stated in Bureau of Transportation website, “Growth in productivity is the fundamental driving force for economic growth.
Productivity growth in freight transportation has long been a driving force for the growth of U. S. overall productivity and contributed directly to the growth of the U. S. “7 All of these were the economic impact of the development of the railroad of the 19th-century. The internal growth driven by the westward migration and settlement was the major contributor to the economic growth of the American West in 19-th century. 8 Even before the railroad was built, many Americans already moved west to look for gold and for farmland.
During that time, the people did not have many options to travel. They could either choose to sail around the tip of South America or to travel to the end of the railroad line and take a rough trail on land in wagons. However, these methods were not easy. For people who travelled by sea, the journey was time consuming and difficult. Augustus J. Veenendaal describes the option that people had to move west: The 5,250-mile-long route to the West, first by ship to Panama and then across the isthmus before boarding anther ship to San Francisco, took at least thirty-five days.
The 13,000mile sea route via Cape Horn was dangerous and took even longer, while the overland stage from St. Louis to San Francisco, if “only” 2,800 miles and thirty days long, was full of discomfort and danger. 9 The wagon trains also were slow, expensive, and not well suited to heavy goods. The transcontinental railroad seemed like the only possible solution for this problem. The government began the discussion to start building the transcontinental railroad in the 1850. There were a lot of controversies while the discussion was going on. One of them was when the road was assigned to be constructed by private interests.
As a solution, a bill had been introduced in April 1860. The bill stated that the government would support private parties with a sixty-million-dollar loan in the form of U. S. bonds plus land grants. After that, many congressmen suspected fraud, and the discussion raged for months until the matters rested there. Two years later, legislation was reintroduced and finally passed by the Senate on June 20, 1862, and by the House of Representative on June 24.
Even though materials may have been scarce and the government was often in crisis, Lincoln elieved that the transcontinental railroad could be a way to unite East and West, just as the Civil War was fought to bind North and South. Therefore, on July 1 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed bill into law called “An Act to aid the Construction of a Railroad and The Line from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, and to secure the Government the Use of the same for Postal, Military and Other Purposes. “10 The construction of the road then started as the railroad companies got money and land from Congress to build a transcontinental railroad to connect the coasts.
The Union Pacific was assigned to build tracks from east to west. At the same time, the Central Pacific was assigned to lay tracks from California to the east. On May 10, 1869, these two tracks met at Promontory Point, Utah to make a 1,800 mile long transcontinental railroad. This railroad was the first that made travel across the continent easier and improve economy drastically. It also launched America into the Industrial Revolution and created an economic boom. Quentin R. Skrabec states, “By 1890, the American railroad industry’s gross income exceeded $1 billion, with the total capital invested over $10 billion. 11
He proves that the transcontinental railroad had greatly contributed to the American economy in 19thcentury. The completion of the transcontinental railroad changed the nation economic by opening up vast areas of the region for settlement. It was the major reason the settlers rushed into what was previously considered a desert wasteland. 12 This settlement caused population growth, which lead to the economic development of the American West. The white settlers, African-American settler and Chinese railroad worker were the main reason for the increase of the population of the west.
In the article “The American West, 1865-1900” published in Library of Congress website, the author reports, “White settlers from the East poured across the Mississippi to mine, farm, and ranch. African-American settlers also came West from the Deep South, convinced by promoters of all-black Western towns that prosperity could be found there. Chinese railroad workers further added to the diversity of the region’s population. “13 As the population raised, the economy also developed linearly. Hence, the railroad supported economic growth of the American West because of the west settlement.
The pattern of industrialization of the American West also changed after the railroads were built. “Formerly, most textiles and metalworking industries had been situated in areas where water power was available and distances were small. With the growing network of railroads, coal as fuel became a real alternative to water power, and railroads provided transportation of the finished products of the mills. “14 This happened because transporting goods have become easier with the help of railroads. The time taken to move the goods from one place to another did not take too much time anymore as they were previously.
The cost to transfer the goods also were lower than before. Thus, agricultural products, coal, and minerals were able to move freely from the west to the east coast. The weight of goods moved increased enormously after the railroads were completely built, “from 90 million tons in 1860 to 235 million tons in 1880 and 425 million tons in 1900. “15 Since transporting goods with railroads were convenient, it became the driving force for the American economic growth. This is because western farmers could make more money by shipping cattle and wheat to the east.
Businesses in the east also were able to ship goods to western towns. 16 As a result, most of the small-scale subsistence farming shifted toward market-oriented production. In conclusion, the development of the railroad in the 19th-century contributed a lot to the economy of the American West. It opened the way for the settlement of the West, provided new economic opportunities, and stimulated the development of cities and communities. “Contemporaries did not hesitate to name the railroads as the single most influential force in transportation.
Without an adequate rail network the transformation of the United States from a predominantly agrarian and preindustrial society into the world’s largest and most powerful industrial nation would not have taken place, at least not as quickly as it did after 1865. “17 Railroads did indeed play a vital role in the rise of the American Industrial Revolution and the impacts were enormous even for today’s generation. Like what was written by Chris Butler, “Although airplanes and automobiles would continue this revolution, it was the railroad that paved the way. “18