- examine, explain, and evaluate a variety of literary and visual primary sources that describe and depict the development and impact of railroads on sectional relationships, national unity, and economic growth during the nineteenth century.
- analyze and assess eyewitness accounts, a notable photograph, and two maps of railway routes.
- read, discuss, and draw conclusions about the text and major concepts.
- make a sound response to one of several possible “essential questions.”
Select one as the focus of this lesson.
- To what extent were railroads the “engine” for the development of national unity and economic growth in the United States during the nineteenth century?
- To what extent did the construction and development of American railroads promote national unity and economic growth in the nineteenth century?
- Was the construction and development of American railroads in the nineteenth century a boon or blight on the nation’s principles and progress?
- To what extent did technological invention and innovation improve transportation and the infrastructure of the United States during the nineteenth century?
- Document Packet
- Document No. 1: Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1854). Based on his retreat to a cabin on Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847, Thoreau reflected on nature and the “misplaced” values he believed dominated American society (preoccupation with materialism and the accumulation of wealth).
- Document No. 2: Alexander Mackay, The Western World or Travels in the United States in 1846–1847 (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1849), 1:236–240. A traveling British journalist and lawyer gave an account on the growth and development of railroads linking the East and West in the United States. (The text is structured as a dialogue; phrases such as “said I” and “replied I” have been removed without ellipses.)
- Document No. 3: Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Preliminary Report on the Eighth Census, 1862. The superintendent of the eighth census (1860) gave a preliminary account of the growth and progress of railroads in the United States for the decade of 1850–1860. Source: Preliminary Report on the Eighth Census, 1862, US Census Bureau
- Document No. 4: Map which depicts the growth and operation of railroads in the United States between 1850 and 1861 from the Council for Economic Education.
- Document No. 5: Excerpt from the Pacific Railway Act (July 1, 1862). Source: Our Documents, www.ourdocument.gov
- Document No. 6: Photograph by Andrew J. Russell, “Joining the Rails at Promontory Summit,” May 10, 1869. This photograph shows the celebration on the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Source: The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC04481.01
- Document No. 7: Letter from General William T. Sherman to David D. Colton, vice president of Southern Pacific Railroad, September 26, 1878. In this letter Sherman highlighted the importance of railroads in the settlement and growth of the West and the growth and security of the nation. Source: (The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, GLC05095
- Document No. 8: Helen Hunt Jackson, Bits of Travel at Home. The author gave an account of her railroad travel experiences and eyewitness observations of the West. Source: Helen Hunt Jackson, Bits of Travel at Home (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878), 6–8.
- Document No. 9: Map depicting the growth and operation of railroads in the United States between 1870 and 1890 from the Council for Economic Education.
- Document No. 10: Map depicting US western railway land grants, GSD lantern slide 36471 from the Images of America: Lantern Slide Collection. (Courtesy of the Frances Loeb Library, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University)
- Document No. 11: Map depicting “Standard Time Belts” in 1913. Source: Chicago Daily News National Almanac and Year-book for 1913 (Chicago, IL: Chicago Daily News Company, 1912), 32. (Available on archive.org.)
- Graphic Organizers
- Graphic Organizer No. 1: “Impact of Railroads on the Development of the United States Before the Civil War.”
- Graphic Organizer No. 2: “Impact of Railroads on the Development of the United States After the Civil War.”
- Document Synthesis Written-Response Sheets
- Document Synthesis Written-Response Sheet No. 1
- Document Synthesis Written-Response Sheet No. 2
- “Exit Card” Written-Response Sheet to Lesson’s “Essential Question”
The construction and development of American railroads during the nineteenth century had a profound effect on the development of national unity and economic growth in the United States. Prior to the construction of railroads and the subsequent development of a nationwide railroad network, the Mississippi River and other navigable waters largely controlled the flow of goods from farm to market. As the building of rail lines increased during the 1840s and 1850s, the direction of the nation’s internal commerce shifted increasingly east-west. The growing economic ties between the East and the West promoted nationalism as well as stronger cultural and political connections between these regions.
In the decades after the Civil War, as the nation experienced accelerated industrialization, immigration, and urbanization, the prospects of relieving the congestion of eastern cities, finding precious minerals, and claiming free, surveyed government land created an even stronger demand for easier access to the West. Big business leadership, technological innovation, and government support led to the development of a nationwide railroad network with the construction of transcontinental railroads, which created and encouraged a national market for the production, transportation, and consumption of goods. The railroad was the “engine” for economic growth and national unity in the United States in the nineteenth century.
On the negative side, the construction and development of railroads and the rapid advance of Americans westward had a devastating effect on American Indian tribes. Of the 15,000 men (largely Irish and Chinese immigrants) employed in the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, nearly 2,000 died on the job as a result of dangerous working conditions, difficult terrain, and low compensation during their six years of labor on the project. Unsavory financial schemes, ruthless competition, corrupt business practices, and outright bribery and fraud dominated the railroad industry. Moreover, as railroad moguls pursued exorbitant profits relentlessly, their dominating influence infiltrated the halls of city, state, and the federal governments against the public interest. The movement for effective regulation and reform of the railroad industry occurred subsequently during the Progressive era of the early twentieth century.
- Divide the class into small heterogeneous groups with three to four students in each group. Each group should contain pupils of varying abilities and levels of achievement.
- Ask each group to identify and assign specific roles for each member of the group, employing a cooperative learning format. For example, one student in each group could be designated as a “recorder” of highlighted evidence and recommended ideas and responses. Another student could be designated as a “reporter” who will subsequently share the group’s ideas and responses with the class. As each group shares its evidence and ideas with the class, a third student from each group, acting as a “scribe,” could copy these ideas and evidence onto to the front white board (blackboard) or type them into a computer for projection onto a screen and display for the class.
- Distribute the packet of excerpts from six documents, three maps, and a photograph andalong with Graphic Organizer No. 1 (“Impact of Railroads on the Development of the United States before the Civil War”) and Graphic Organizer No. 2 (“Impact of Railroads on the Development of the United States after the Civil War”) to all students. Students, collaborating in groups, will use documents 1, 2, 3, and 4 to complete Graphic Organizer No. 1 and documents 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 to complete Graphic Organizer No. 2. (Alternatively, you could give half of the groups documents 1 through 4 and Graphic Organizer No. 1 and other half documents 5 through 9 and Graphic Organizer No. 2. Then the student groups could share their ideas and learning in a “jigsaw” approach.)
- In their groups, students will initially read the text of documents 1, 2, and 3. You can choose to have the groups read silently or aloud in a “shared reading” or “read around” activity (for pronunciation and/or rhetorical purposes). For guided reading, pupils should note, highlight, and/or underline key terms, phrases, and sentences that describe and delineate the impact of railroad construction and operation on the development of the United States, especially its economic growth and regional and national unity.
- Document Analysis and Evidence, Step One: After reading each document (1, 2, 3) and examining the map (4), the students should identify specific terms, phrases, and/or sentences in these documents as evidence to support their assertions and write these terms, phrases, and/or sentences in the Document Evidence box of Graphic Organizer No. 1 next to each appropriate document (1, 2, 3, 4). Then, the students in their groups will “turn and talk” to their peers and discuss the contents of each document it relates to the impact of railroads on the development of national unity and economic growth in the United States.
- Document Summary, Step Two: Based on the Document Evidence that was recorded for each document (1, 2, 3, and 4), each student should write a brief Summary Statement of this evidence in their own words in each one of the corresponding boxes of Graphic Organizer No. 1. Upon completion of this graphic organizer, each group should discuss their summary statements with their peers on the economic growth and development of national unity in the United States. (Option: If time permits, each group could then report the consensus of their summary statements to the whole class.)
- Document Synthesis, Step Three: Based on the foundation of their document evidence selections and their personalized summary statements, the students in their groups will now write a response to the following question on “Document Synthesis Written Response Sheet No. 1”: How did the construction and operation of railroads before the Civil War (1830–1860) affect the development of national unity and economic growth in the United States? After each student completes the written response, he/she will “turn-and-talk” to their peers in the group and share what he/she has written and learned from the primary source documents on this issue. (Option: If time permits, each group could then report a consensus of what has been written and learned to the whole class.)
- Once they have completed Document Synthesis Written Response Sheet No. 1, the students will repeat this three-step process for documents 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 by reading and examining the documents, photograph, and map; completing Graphic Organizer No. 2; and writing, on Document Synthesis Written-Response Sheet No. 2, a response to the following question: “How did the construction and operation of railroads after the Civil War (1865–1890) affect the development of national unity and economic growth in the United States?”
- Lesson Closure and Final Summary: The students will then re-assemble for a whole-class discussion on the impact that railroad construction and operation had on the development of national unity and economic growth in the United States during the nineteenth century, initially before the Civil War from 1830 to 1860 (with the enhancement of the economic, political, and cultural connections, communications, interactions, and trade between the eastern and western regions of the United States) and subsequently after the Civil War from 1865 to 1900 (with the construction and operation of transcontinental railroads that promoted the development of a national market for the mass production, transportation, and consumption of goods and movement of people throughout the nation, as well as the growth of the coal and steel industries and the establishment of the modern corporation).
- In the final segment of the lesson, students should respond to the essential question (chosen from the list above), either verbally as part of whole-class discussion or in writing by recording an entry into their journals or “learning logs,” or by writing a response to the lesson’s “essential question” on an “Exit Card” Written Response Sheet. Hand out Documents 10 and 11 and the “Exit Card” Written Response Sheet with your chosen essential question. Remind students that they must use evidence cited from the texts and maps used throughout the lesson to support their arguments.
- Application Activity (optional): As an application of the major concepts and understandings of this lesson, the pupils could analyze and assess the circumstances and conditions under which state governments and the federal government should assist and support the activities and initiatives of large businesses and industries (examples: “bailouts,” formulation of federal fiscal and monetary policies, loans, research, tax incentives, tariffs, etc.). Students could compare the types of assistance and support that state governments and the federal government provided to American railroads during the nineteenth century, such as huge subsidies in the form of loans, land grants, and tax incentives, with recent and current circumstances when the issue of government assistance and support has been discussed and debated to further the public interest and the economic growth and national welfare of American society.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Already have an account?
Please click here to login and access this page.
How to subscribe
Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.
Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.
Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Why Gilder Lehrman?
Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.
Individual subscription: $25
Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Upgrade your Account
We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.
All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!
How to Subscribe
K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.
Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Related Site Content
- Teaching ResourceEssential Questions in Teaching American History
- Teaching ResourceTeaching Literacy through History Units and Lesson Plans
- EssayTranscontinental Railroads: Compressing Time and Space
- EssayBorn Modern: An Overview of the West
- EssayThe Origins of the Transcontinental Railroad
- Primary SourceOfficial photograph from the “Golden Spike” Ceremony, 1869
- EssayThe Myth of the Frontier: Progress or Lost Freedom
- Teaching ResourceAgriculture in America
- Primary SourceAnti-corporate cartoons, ca. 1900
- EssayPhotographing the Transcontinental Railroad