Railroads in the Late 19th Century
Night scene on the New York Central Railroad., American Express company”s special express train Popular Graphic Arts
Beginning in the early 1870s, railroad construction in the United States increased dramatically. Prior to 1871, approximately 45,000 miles of track had been laid. Between 1871 and 1900, another 170,000 miles were added to the nation”s growing railroad system. Much of the growth can be attributed to the building of the transcontinental railroads. In 1862, Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the construction of a transcontinental railroad. The first such railroad was completed on May 10, 1869. By 1900, four additional transcontinental railroads connected the eastern states with the Pacific Coast.
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Four of the five transcontinental railroads were built with assistance from the federal government through land grants. Receiving millions of acres of public lands from Congress, the railroads were assured land on which to lay the tracks and land to sell, the proceeds of which helped companies finance the construction of their railroads. Not all railroads were built with government assistance, however. Smaller railroads had to purchase land on which to lay their tracks from private owners, some of whom objected to the railroads and refused to grant rights of way.
Laying track and living in and among the railroad construction camps was often very difficult. Railroad construction crews were not only subjected to extreme weather conditions, they had to lay tracks across and through many natural geographical features, including rivers, canyons, mountains, and desert. Like other large economic opportunity situations in the expanding nation, the railroad construction camps attracted all types of characters, almost all of whom were looking for ways to turn a quick profit, legally or illegally. Life in the camps was often very crude and rough.
By 1900, much of the nation”s railroad system was in place. The railroad opened the way for the settlement of the West, provided new economic opportunities, stimulated the development of town and communities, and generally tied the country together. When the railroads were shut down during the great railroad strike of 1894, the true importance of the railroads was fully realized.
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