Hank Williams sang about the lonely sound of a train whistle in the night. Iconic photographs capture the laying of the last rail. Countless movies and books set their adventures aboard railroad cars. Despite the advent of airplanes and automobiles, the romance of trains remains. So too does the railroad’s importance in the history of the United States. The railroad linked East and West Coasts, making a truly national market and national culture possible. It opened land west of the Mississippi to settlers—and in the process, did great damage to the Native American peoples already living there. It employed thousands of Chinese and European laborers, made use of technologies never used on such a large scale, and led to a collaboration of private capital and government resources. When the golden spike was struck, America was changed forever.
This issue of History Now is devoted to the impact of this most famous moment in American rail history: the joining of the East and the West by the transcontinental railroad.
In his overview essay, Richard White introduces us to both the myths and the realities of the process by which “East shook hands with West.” He reminds us that the two rail lines did not actually unite the two great oceans, but stresses the enormous undertaking of laying 1800 miles of track across the plains and mountains of the West. White offers a few surprises, including the fact that the land grants of the famous checkerboard pattern were probably unnecessary for the financing of the railroads.
In “American Indians and the Transcontinental Railroad,” Elliott West provides valuable insight into the role of the railroad in Indian removal from and white settlement of the West. He demonstrates how Native Americans’ loss of their homelands was disastrously speeded up by the laying of the transcontinental railroad lines. He reminds us that one people’s triumph was another’s tragedy.
In “Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad,” Glenn Willumson focuses on a different technology: the recording of the new construction through photography. He introduces us to photographers Alfred Hart and Andrew Russell, employed by the two rail companies to document their achievements. For the general public, these photographs provided a visual record of this critical moment in railroad history; for the financiers of the projects, they were advertisements aimed at potential settlers and a means of attracting investors.
In “Financing the Transcontinental Railroad,” Maury Klein takes the reader through the complex process by which men like Collis P. Huntington raised the funds—and garnered what profits there were to be made—to finance their undertakings. No one knows how much the construction of this railroad ultimately cost, although Oakes Ames, of the Union Pacific, declared that the capitalization of his line stood at $111 million in 1869!
Finally, Amy Richter provides a vital social history perspective in “Home Adrift: Women and Domesticated Rail Travel.” Richter reminds us that the railroad—symbol of manliness—was equally feminine in the domesticity of its parlor cars. These “flying drawing-rooms” made rail travel both pleasant and acceptable for genteel female passengers. Rail travel provided women the pleasures of sociability, the experience of participating in a unique example of American progress, and a means to integrate themselves into public life. But Richter, in recounting the experiences of African American women, shows that this mode of travel recreated and confirmed class and racial divisions.
This issue’s interactive feature is from the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis at Stanford. We have provided links to several different maps and other resources on the evolution of the railroads, created as part of the center’s Spatial History Project on “Shaping the West.”
And, as always, we have provided lesson plan suggestions for elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy new year!