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10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

September 4, 2019 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

The country, from its commerce to the environment to even its concept of time, was profoundly altered after the completion of the railroad’s 1,776 miles of track.

There was a time when traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast meant riding for months in a horse-drawn wagon or stagecoach, or sailing southward to Panama and then crossing the Isthmus to board another ship for a journey up the other coast. But that all changed on In particular, it helped turn California from a once-isolated place to a major economic and political force, and helped lead to the state’s rapid growth.

2. It made commerce possible on a vast scale.

By 1880, the transcontinental railroad was transporting $50 million worth of freight each year. In addition to transporting western food crops and raw materials to East Coast markets and manufactured goods from East Coast cities to the West Coast, the railroad also facilitated international trade.

The first freight train to travel eastward from California carried a load of Japanese tea. “The Constitution provided the legal framework for a single national market for trade goods; the transcontinental railroad provided the physical framework,” explains Henry W. Brands, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Dreams of El Dorado: A History of the American West. “Together they 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 the U.S. by the 1890s had the most powerful economy on the planet.”

Building of the Transcontinental Railroad, circa 1869.

3. It made travel more affordable.

In the 1860s, a six-month stagecoach trip across the U.S. cost $1,000 (about $20,000 in today’s dollars), according to the University of Houston’s Digital History website. But once the railroad was built, the cost of a coast-to-coast trip became 85 percent less expensive. That made it possible for Americans to visit distant locales that previously they might only have heard about.

4. It changed where Americans lived.

During the railroad’s construction, numerous temporary “hell on wheels” towns of tents and wooden shacks sprung up along the route to provide living quarters for workers. Most of them eventually disappeared, but others, such as Laramie, Wyoming, evolved into towns that provided rail terminals and repair facilities. Additionally, about 7,000 cities and towns …read more


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