Railroad Network and Economic Development

RAILROAD NETWORK DEVELOPMENT and

ECONOMIC INTEGRATION

 

The metallic fingers of the railroads intimately touched countless phases of American life.

For the first time, a sprawling nation became united in a physical sense, bound with ribs of iron and steel.

By stitching North America together from sea to sea, the transcontinental lines created an enormous domestic market for American raw materials, and manufactured goods—probably the largest integrated national market area in the world.

This huge empire of commerce beckoned to foreign and domestic investors alike, as well as to businesspeople who could now dare to dream on a continental scale.

More than any other single factor, the railroad network spurred the amazing industrialization of the post-Civil War years.

The puffing locomotives opened up fresh markets for manufactured goods and sped raw materials to factories.

The forging of the rails themselves provided the largest single backlog for the adolescent steel industry.

The screeching iron horse likewise stimulated mining and agriculture, especially in the West.

It took farmers out to their land, carried the fruits of their toil to market, and brought them their manufactured necessities.

Clusters of farm settlements paralleled the railroads, just as earlier they had followed the rivers.

Railways were a boon for cities and played a leading role in the great cityward movement of the last decades of the century.

The iron monsters could carry food to enormous concentrations of people and at the same time ensure them a livelihood by providing both raw materials and markets.

Railroad companies also stimulated the mighty stream of immigration.

Seeking settlers to whom their land grants might be sold at a profit, they advertised seductively in Europe and sometimes offered to transport the newcomers free to their farms.

The land also felt the impact of the railroad—especially the broad, ecologically fragile midsection of the continent that Thomas Jefferson had purchased from France in 1803.

Settlers following the railroads plowed up the tallgrass prairies of Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, and Nebraska and planted well-drained, rectangular cornfields.

On the shortgrass prairies of the high plains in the Dakotas and Montana, range-fed cattle rapidly displaced the buffalo, which were hunted to near-extinction.

The white pine forests of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota disappeared into lumber that was sped by rail to prairie farmers who used it to build houses and fences.

Time itself was bent to the railroads’ needs. Until the 1880s every town in the United States had its own "local" time, dictated by the sun’s position.

When it was noon in Chicago, it was 11:50 A.M. in St. Louis and 12:18 P.M. in Detroit.

For railroad operators worried about keeping schedules and avoiding wrecks, this patchwork of local times was a nightmare.

Thus on November 18, 1883, the major rail lines decreed that the continent would henceforth be divided into four "time zones."

Most communities quickly adopted railroad "standard" time.

Finally, the railroad, more than any other single factor, was the maker of millionaires.

A raw new aristocracy, consisting of "lords of the rail," replaced the old southern "lords of the lash."

The multiwebbed lines became the playthings of Wall Street; and colossal wealth was amassed by stock speculators and railroad wreckers."