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TransContinental Railroad Essay Examples

TransContinental Railroad

If any act symbolized the taming of the Northwest frontier, it was the driving of the final spike to complete the nations first transcontinental railroad.1  The first railroad west of the Mississippi River was opened on December 23, 1852.  Five miles long, the track ran from St. Louis to Cheltanham, Missouri.  Twenty-five years prior, there were no railroads in the United States; twenty-five years later, railroads joined the east and west coasts from New York to San Francisco.2

No other single factor contributed more the commercial and social development of the Pacific Northwest than the arrival of the railroad.  For the first time in history, people could get to the west coast in a matter of days rather than months by covered wagons or boat around the southern tip of South America.  Immigrants, adventurers, opportunity-seekers, and entrepreneurs came by the hundreds of thousands.  Between 1887 and 1889, the railroad brought into the area an estimated 100,000 people. 3  The population of Washington in 1880 was 75,116.  By 1890, it had reached 349,390, a 365 percent increase in just ten years. 4  The Pacific Northwest advanced in a single generation the development that took the eastern United States several generations to accomplish as they went from a frontier to urban society.

As a result of railroad surveys commissioned during the 1860s for the purpose of finding practical routes to the Pacific, three railroads were chartered for westward transcontinental expansion.  These railroads were the Union Pacific, Central Pacific, and the Northern Pacific.  The Union Pacific came from Omaha in the east, the Central Pacific came from Sacramento in the west, and met each other at Promontory Point in Utah, on May 10, 1869.5  The Union Pacific is generally seen as the most important of the northern transcontinental railways, partially because of its early construction and also partially because of its more central route.6  The Union Pacific did experience financial difficulties because it did not receive federal cash loans and because its construction began before there was sufficient commercial traffic to make the company turn a profit.7

The Union Pacific, Central Pacific, and the Northern Pacific were all land-grant roads; that is, they were subsidized with lands from the public.  Each railroad was to receive a 200-foot-wide right-of-way and sections of public lands to help finance construction.  The Northern Pacifics charter originally provided ten alternate sections per mile in states through which it passed and 20 sections per mile in territories.  If sufficient lands were not available within this grant, other sections could be selected as in-lieu from a secondary zone which reached back from the tracks another 20 miles.8  These land grants contributed greatly to commercial development and growth of towns along the track routes.  A fourth railroad was the Southern Pacific, which was routed from New Orleans to Los Angeles.  The Great Northern Railway was the fifth transcontinental line.  The Great Northern, along with the Northern Pacific, had the greatest impact on developing the northwest.  However, unlike the Northern Pacific, it was not a land-grand railroad.  It did not obtain federal loans to help in its construction as did the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.9  The Northern Pacific received generous land grants but did not receive any government loans in the building of its railroads.

After several financial delays, the directors were able to begin with the aid given by Jay Cooke, a monetary genius of his day.  Supplemented by bond sales, Cooke took over the financing of the Northern Pacific.  Construction started in the east from Lake Superior and from the west at Kalama on the Columbia River.  However, the construction came to a screeching halt in 1873 with the failure of Cookes company.  At that point in time, the United States was entering a deep economic depression.  Considerable blame was heaped upon the Northern Pacific Company because of its wild scheme to build a railroad through the wilderness to nowhere 10  By 1875, work had resumed on both ends of the railroad.  In 1883, the Northern Pacific had completed its construction and the final spike was driven in about sixty miles west of Helena, Montana at Gold Creek.  This marked the completion of the nations second transcontinental railroad, and the first one built by a single company.11

In 1883, a German immigrant named Henry Villard obtained control of the Northern Pacific.  He connected it to the line of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, which also bought the Oregon Steamship Company which provided service from Portland to San Francisco.  Previously, in 1879, he had gained control of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and had begun building a railroad along the south bank of the Columbia River to its junction with the Snake River.  Villard formed a new corporation, the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company.  He planned to make Portland the trade outlet of the Northwest.  However, in 1884, Villard lost control of his two lines.  His partners from the Puget Sound area wasted no time in building a link from the Snake River over the Cascade Mountains to Tacoma, bypassing Portland.  Villard was not one to give up.  In 1889, he organized the Oregon Transcontinental Company.  It took over the Northern Pacific and shared ownership of the OR and N with the Union Pacific. 12

The depression of 1873 brought the dream of a lifetime to a Canadian citizen by the name of James J. Hill.  He had come to the United States with the purpose of making his fortune.  He later received the nickname the empire builder because of his remarkable achievements.  He was a storekeeper in St. Paul, Minnesota, when he and a partner founded the Red River Transportation Company, which was a financial success.  He began dreaming of a Northwest Empire and the trade opportunities that access to the pacific coast would offer.  In 1878, Hill and a group of Canadians bought out the almost non-existent St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and began expanding, changing the name of the railroad to the Great Northern.  Hills goal was the Pacific and beyond.  13
In 1889, Hill committed himself to a railroad to the Pacific Northwest.  He did not know if he and his associates had the financial resourcesbut did know that a newly constructed, properly engineered and financed railway would be far more profitable than the ramshackle Northern Pacific.  Thus was born the Great Northern Railway. 14  The Great Northern was unique in that it was built solely by private capital and received no outside aid or land grants from the United States government.  In addition, it was the only rail line to finance itself on a pay-as-you-go basis.  It encouraged agricultural development settlement rather than being dependent on government land grants.15  Therefore, it did not attract the huge financial interests and commercial development, which followed other rail lines.  This self-sufficient basis of operation also allowed the Great Northern to stand strong in the face of the economic depressions, which bankrupted other railways.

The final spike was driven on January 6, 1893, but, unlike the Northern Pacific for which passenger service began the day after the final spike was driven, passenger service on the Great Northern did not reach Seattle until June of that year.  By that time, the United States was entering its worst depression so far.  Newcomers traveling by rail poured into the region, especially into Washington at a rate unimaginable only a decade earlier.  Cities and farms transformed the landscape, and large-scale business enterprises and organized labor attained prominence and power not possessed before.16

The results of railroad construction in the Pacific Northwest were momentous.  The railroad enormously expanded the territory tributary to the port cities of Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle.  Although these cities fought over the trade of the interior, they increased it immensely over the days of the Columbia-Willamette route.  The railroad encouraged the flow of immigration to the region.  Most of those who produced the great population increase of these years and contributed to its greater homogeneity were relieved in body and pocketbook to come by train rather than by covered wagon or by ship.17

The railroad redefined the economy for the northwest region.  It opened opportunities for nationwide markets for local products such as wheat and timber.  People who had been dependent on local merchants as their only source of supply, and having to pay whatever costs the traffic would bear, now had the opportunity to bring products in from other areas of the country, where they were cheaper.17  The railroads motives were less than benevolent, however.  They were in the business for profit, federally unregulated at this point.  Discrimination in freight rates, non-competitive points, and a general tendency by the public to believe that the railroad did not help lower prices contributed to a growing anti-railroad feeling in spite of the advancements.18

The railroad advanced the economic development of the region, as well as its own, by publicizing the opportunities of the area.  Both the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern had publicity bureaus.  The Northern Pacific distributed literature throughout the eastern part of the United States and Europe.  It sent special cars to the East with publicity exhibits.  It sold land inexpensively, realizing that the real profits for the railroad would come from the transportation of corps, not from the sale of the land.19

The railroad also created new communities.  A classic example is Spokane, Washington, which became a true railroad huban agricultural center.20  Another industry which benefited greatly from the railroads was the lumber industry.  The railroads needed the lumber for ties during the construction of their lines.  Because this was an enormous expense, this need also meant that the railroad companies had to acquire their own forest land to supply timber for construction of the railroads.  This opened way for development of the Pacific Northwest forests by people such as Frederick Weyerhaeuser who bought 900,000 acres of timber form the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1900.21  The Railroads were essential to the development of a region which was, until perhaps the development of the automobile.

The whole significancein western railroad history was their importance as a period of transition from pioneer conditions to those of the present day.  Problems of construction and engineering gave way to those operation and manipulation  State legislation gave way to federal regulation   conditions had become such that the present-day user of the railroad have found himself pretty much at home.  The pioneer had given way to the permanent settlers.22



Cocke, William.  A Historical Album of Washington.  Brookfield, Connecticut: The Milibrook Press, Inc., 1995.

Dodds, Gordon B. The American Northwest Inc.  Arlington Heights, Illinois: The Forum Press, 1986.

Dryden, Cecil.  Dryden’s History of Washington.  Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, 1968.

Editors.  The Wild West.  New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1993.

Feagans, Raymond J. The Railroad That Ran With the Tide.  Berkeley, California: Howell-North Books, 1972.

Nolan, Edward W. Northern Pacific Views The Railroad Photography of F. Jay Haynes, 1876-1905.  Helena, Montana: Montana Historical Society Press, 1983.

Riegel, Robert Edgar.  The Story of the Western Railroads. Lincoln, Nebraska: University
of Nebraska Press, 1964.

Schwantes, Carlos A. The Pacific Northwest, An Interpretive History.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

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