U.S. Railroad History

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See Also Railway History

United States

In the United States, a railway building mania began in the 1830s and persisted through the 1870s. Although the South started early to build railways, it concentrated on short lines linking cotton regions to oceanic or river ports. Its lack of a real network was a major handicap during the American Civil War. The North and Midwest constructed networks that linked every city by 1860. In the heavily settled Corn Belt (from Ohio to Iowa), over 80% of farms were within 5 miles of a railway. A large number of short lines were built, but thanks to a fast developing financial system based on Wall Street and oriented to railway securities, the majority were consolidated into 20 trunk lines by 1890. State and local governments often subsidized lines, but rarely owned them. The federal government operated a land grant system between 1855 and 1871, through which new railway companies in the uninhabited West were given millions of acres they could sell or pledge to bondholders. A total of 129 million acres were granted to the railroads before the program ended, supplemented by a further 51 million acres granted by the states, and by various government subsidies. This program enabled the opening of numerous western lines, especially the Union Pacific-Central Pacific with fast service from San Francisco to Omaha and east to Chicago. West of Chicago, many cities grew up as rail centers, with repair shops and a base of technically literate workers.

Although the transcontinentals dominated the media, with the completion of the first in 1869 dramatically symbolizing the nation’s unification after the divisiveness of the Civil War, most construction actually took place in the industrial Northeast and agricultural Midwest, and was designed to minimize shipping times and costs.

The U.S. imported British technology in the 1830s, but was soon self sufficient, as thousands of machine shops turned out products and thousands of inventors and tinkerers improved the equipment. The military academy at West Point saw most of its graduates become civil engineers in the private sector. This was a better paying, higher status job than army officer, in stark contrast to the preeminence of officers in Europe. The result was that the Americans became enamored of engineering solutions for all economic, political and social problems, combined with an unusually strong financial system that grew out of the railways. As the railways grew larger they devised increasingly complex forms of management, invented middle management, setting up career paths, and establishing uniform bureaucratic rules for hiring, seniority, firing, promotions, wage rates and benefits. By 1880, the nation had 17,800 locomotives carrying 23,600 tons of freight, but only 22,200 passengers. The effects of the American railways on rapid industrial growth were many, including the opening of hundreds of millions of acres of very good farm land ready for mechanization, lower costs for food and all goods, a huge national sales market, the creation of a culture of engineering excellence, and the creation of the modern system of management.