The expansion of the American railroad system in the 19th century brought with it unprecedented economic and cultural change – which also happened at an unprecedented pace. It is almost impossible for us, in the early 21st century, to conceive the complete transformation that the railroad was responsible for – both directly and indirectly. Westland and Clark (12) compare the impact of the railroad on ordinary life with the impact of the internet on our generation. Indeed, in 1900 the railroad was responsible for 15% of American GDP – roughly equivalent to the internet’s impact on the American economy. Early in the 19th century Jefferson, reflecting on the vastness of the virgin American continent that lay to the West, imagined it would take a thousand years to colonize and organize. In fact, on May 10th 1869 the first transcontinental railroad was opened. By 1890 America could boast 167,000 mils or railroad track. This paper will examine the profound economic effects that the railroad had on American economics and culture.
Even before May 10th, 1869 the building of the trans-continental railroad had had a massive effect on American economics. The construction of the track, through thousands of miles of virgin territory, required a large, cheap labor force and hundreds of thousands of Chinese and Irish construction workers emigrated to America. This influx foreshadowed later patterns of immigration towards the end of the 19th century, encouraged by American governments keen to have a workforce for the growing industrial base of the United Sates – an industrial base which itself had been stimulated, as we shal see, by the railroad system itself. At the other end of the scale from the workers who laid the track, were the so-called robber barons such as Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt (Olson 46 – 47) who made fortunes from speculation in the railroad system – before it was even finished. Aware of the potential benefits to their communities offered by railroad links, individual states offered generous state funding to the railroad companies as lures to encourage them to build their railroads through certain states or through certain towns and cities. As Scott (450) confirms “there were big profits to be made in US railroad development in the form of local government grants to favor one region over another.” Thus the privately owned railroads were given huge financial inducements to follow a particular route. Thus fortunes were made. Once the routes were established the railroad companies made even more money by allowing other national systems access to the routes and the railroad lines that they owned.
The economic impact of the Americna railroad is related essentially to two obvious aspects of the railroad system itself: the speed of travel, for both passengers and freight, that trains allowed; and the necessity, while the first transcontinental railroads were being constructed, literally blasting a way through mountains across deserts, over rivers. The railroad system allowed other national systems of communication to flourish, because they followed the lines of the railroad system. The most obvious example is the postal service, but other industries were, before the end of the 19th century, to take advantage of the routes cleared by the railway companies. Electricity, telegraph, telephone and oil pipelines were all to use what Westland and Clark (12) call the “railroads’ long uninterrupted rights of way” and would be charged massive fees for doing so. Scott writes, “the empowerment of private firms to develop and operate critical infrastructure would lead to increased in equalities in economic and political power as the U.S. headed towards the second half of the 19th century.”
This economic activity affected both agriculture and industrial production. Farmers could transport their produce ever greater distances relatively quickly and this lead to over-production and regional specialization. As Westland and Clark (12) put it “farmers were no longer tethered to the farmers’ markets of their local village.” The drive for greater crop yields per acre lead in turn to the development over time of improved fertilizers and selective propagation of different, higher-yielding seeds. Iowa introduced legislation requiring the railroad companies to build track and stations to within six miles for every farm in the state (Westland and Clark 12), such was the perceived importance of the railroad system. The effects on industry were enormous too and similar. Regional specialism in commercial manufacture became possible and with it volume production and national marketing schemes. Scoot (passim) argues that capitalism developed and became institutionalized as a response to the huge amounts of wealth to be made and then re-invested in the industries which prospered from the railroad system. This idle savings were invested again in the burgeoning stock markets which themselves had been formed to channel and partly regulate the wealth accumulated during this economic boom. The boom itself, of course, lead to a shortage of labor in the industrial centers which lead to more immigration especially form economically deprived areas of Europe.
The railroads had a huge impact on ordinary life which was reflected in culture. In American literature Nathaniel Hawthorne (781) is one if the first writers to describe the new phenomenon of the railroad:
But hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive - the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens, from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in the country village, men of business, in short of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.
Here Hawthorne concentrates on the negative impact of the railroad’s noise on the idyllic pastoral world of the United States. The “peace” and “harmony” of the village are disrupted by the railroad’s “harshness” and “men of business [from] the noisy world” are arriving. This is a remarkably perceptive comment by Hawthorne, given all that we have learnt in the first half of this paper about the development of the American economy. Hawthorne’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson (111), was more enthusiastic about the new invention:
I hear the whistle of the locomotive in the woods. Wherever that music comes it has its sequel. It is the voice of the civility of the Nineteenth Century saying, "Here I am." It is interrogative: it is prophetic: and this Cassandra is believed: "Whew! Whew! Whew! How is real estate here in the swamp and wilderness? Ho for Boston! Whew! Whew! . I will plant a dozen houses on this pasture next moon, and a village anon. . . .
Despite Emerson’s clear sense of the exciting possibilities of the railroad (shown in the onomatopoeic “Whew! Whew!”), he is also aware of the commercial imperatives, shown by his mention of “real estate” and “a dozen houses”, and the speed of social change: the dozen houses will be planted “on this pasture nest moon” – in a month there will be a community, although his use of the word “plant” with all its associations with farmers and growth suggest that he sees the new developments in a positive light. Frank Norris, writing in the 1890s and awrae of the real consequences of the trans-continental railroad system on the lives of ordinary Americans, is much more concerned, in The Octopus: A California Story with showing the violence and the deaths caused by unfettered, laissez-faire capitalism. These are just three examples. American literature was changed forever by the railroad. Even the plots of some novels and stories were affected by the new possibilities of speed and punctuality that the railroad afforded: we find a trivial example in Stephen Crane’s short story “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” where all the tension of the plot revolves the imminent arrival of the train.
The railroad had an enormous impact on American popular song – which continued into the 20th century. The most common feature of railroad life to be celebrated in song wad the freedom offered by the railroad system to wanderers, hoboes, who could drift from coast to coast on freight trains as they wished. Such songs (Perkins 149)celebrate the hard lives and stoicism of men who lived a completely different life form the robber barons such as Gould and Vanderbilt:
My heart began to roam around and I begin to sing,
If that freight train goes through this town, I’ll catch it on a wing;
I pulled my cap down over my eyes and stepped up to the track,
I caught the stirrup of an empty car but never did look back.
The idea of wandering freely was already part of American culture. The railroad system simply made it easier and, as it were, mechanized the tradition.
Other cultural impacts were to do with the ease of transport offered by the new system: traveling theaters, choirs and orchestras allowed mainstream culture to be taken everywhere in the United Sates. This phenomenon, together with easier distribution of newspapers and books, helped establish a national identity and break down regional barriers. (Bowne 235). Even the production of standardized shop notices, fittings and window architecture began to give Main Street a homogenized look, so that ordinary American architecture was influenced by the railroad (Browne 62). The railroad enabled the development of a truly national culture and intellectual discourse through new ways of communication that it encouraged either directly or indirectly.
Overall, it can be seen that the establishment of a national railroad system changed America forever. It was to be changed again in different ways by the automobile in the early 20th century, but it was the railroad system that put in place the national infrastructure which shaped the country that we live in today.
Browne, Pat. The Guide to United States Popular Culture. 2001. New York: Popular Press.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Essays. 2002. London: Methuen. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Collected Works. 2009. Cambridge: Cambridge University press. Print.
Norris, Frank. The Octopus: A California Story. 1994. London: Penguin. Print.
Olson, Ron. U.S. History: 1865 – Present: From Reconstruction Through the Dawn of the 21st Century. 2007. New York: Career Press. Print.
Perkins, Frank J. The Great American Songbook. 1996. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Print.
Scott, Bruce R. Capitalism: Its Origins and Evolution as a System of Governance. 2011. New York: Springer Press. Print.
Westland, J. Christopher & Clark, Theodore H. K. Global Electronic Commerce: Theory and Case Studies. 1999. New York: MIT Press. Print.