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American Railroad History & the Move West

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American Railroad History

Today, it might be hard to imagine a time when travelling across the country was a difficult and even deadly journey. Prior to locomotives, this was an unfortunate reality in the United States. America's railways made it more manageable and convenient to travel long distances, and the transcontinental railroad, in particular, opened up the country in terms of traveling to the west. At a time when many believed in Manifest Destiny, railroads made its fulfillment a possibility and helped shape the United States as we know it today. Although railroads and trains began in Europe, its history in the U.S. was one of astounding and unparalleled growth.

The first "railroads" in the United States were not intended for trains. In fact, from the early 1800s railroads were tracks on which carriages or cars were pulled by horses. This was done primarily to transport goods. In Europe, locomotives were invented and railroads were being used for transportation. Seeing the potential for locomotive use on U.S. railroads, engineer William Strickland was sent by the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvement in the Commonwealth, to investigate advancements made in Europe. In addition, he was given instruction to purchase a locomotive for use in the U.S. In 1828, he procured the Stourbridge Lion, which was shipped to America.

At the same time, The Baltimore and Ohio (BO) Railway went under construction and a year later was used to test the Stourbridge Lion. The test ended negatively, as the train was too heavy for the tracks. By 1830, the first locomotive to be built entirely in the U.S. was the passenger train called the "Best Friend," or the "Best Friend of Charleston" and it was tested on what would become the South Carolina Railroad. From this point, America continued to make improvements in locomotives, building steam-powered locomotives such as "Old Ironsides."

As developments with locomotives continued, railroads continued to spread. In the beginning, many small companies were constructing railroads with little guidance from the states. As a result, construction was often haphazard and tracks were laid quickly. With time, small companies began to merge and form larger companies, such as the New York Central Railroad Company. According to the Association of American Railroads, due to the rapid pace of construction, the miles of operational track in the U.S. by 1850 was equal to the combined number of tracks in the world. By 1860, the United States boasted over 30,000 miles of operational tracks that, at that point, did not yet connect the entire country.

The railroad was crucial in terms of the American West. Prior to the transcontinental railroad, travel westward was treacherous and time-consuming. The journey was either by land or sea, with people risking illness and death with either route. During the early days of the railroad, tracks were predominantly established in the east. While talk of spreading the railroad west occurred, interest did not become serious until after California joined the Union and the discovery of gold. Routes for a transcontinental railroad were studied by Congress during the 1850s, during which much debate over a north versus south route took place.

The start of the Civil War decreased activity in terms of the building of railroads in general; however, their usefulness became more apparent as they were utilized during the war. During this time a route near Donner Pass was revealed and presented to Congress by the newly formed Central Pacific Railroad Company. As a result, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862, despite the Civil War being in effect. The Act gave two companies land grants and government bonds. These companies, each on opposite ends of the country, were the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad. Central Pacific began a line from the west, spiking the first track on October 26, 1863. Union Pacific Railroad Company laid tracks from the east; however, it did not start until 1865, two years after Central Pacific. On May 10, 1869 the two companies met and merged at Promontory Point in Utah. The event was celebrated by hammering golden spikes, thus signifying the completion of the Pacific Railway. The completion of this first transcontinental railroad was seen by many as the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny in that travel to America's West was easier than ever before.

Railroads and trains were the first convenient form of transportation from one coast to the other. They were both a positive and negative presence for people in the west and across the country. For Native-Americans, railroads would ultimately bring more people and would lead to much death and ultimate displacement. For much of America, however, it opened the doors to convenient travel from the east coast to the west and created many new opportunities. The building of railroads also contributed to the diversification of the country as people from other parts of the world contributed in making the transcontinental railroad a reality. Despite both of the positive and the negative aspects of America's railroad history, its role in the development of the United States is undeniable.

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