The Great Age Of Railroad Building
Beginning in the nineteenth century in the United States, a vast system of railroads was developed that moved goods and people across great distances, facilitated the settlement of large portions of the country, created towns and cities, and unified a nation.
Railroads began in the East, but quickly moved west, spider-webbing across the country. Wherever railroads went, people followed and towns grew. Previously uninhabited or sparsely inhabited areas of the country became towns almost overnight when the railroad came through. One striking example is the case of Terminus, Georgia. The small town of about thirty was chosen as the terminus for the Western & Atlantic Railroad. In 1845, it was renamed Atlanta and went on to become one of the most important cities in the South.
Railroads were crucial in moving goods to markets. Cities in the East, like New York and Boston, and in the Midwest, like Chicago, that had begun life as ports, became the centers for railroad transport of agricultural and industrial products. Railroads freed trade of the constrictions of the natural sources of transport, such as rivers, because railroads could be constructed almost anywhere. Like canals before them, railroads became in essence man-made rivers. Railroads moved freight and people between urban centers in the East into the interior of the country and ultimately toward the West.
Towns in the center of the country became boom-towns, acting as railroad transshipment points for goods. Perhaps the best examples of this are the Kansas towns like Abilene and the infamous Dodge City. From the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s, Texas cowboys drove herds of longhorn cattle to these towns where they were loaded onto trains for shipment to stockyards and slaughterhouses in cities like Chicago. The cattle drives ended when the railroads moved even farther west and south to areas where the cattle were grazed and when farmers across whose lands the cattle were driven erected barbed-wire fences to keep out the trampling herds. Railroad towns that were no longer needed as access points for railroads often were abandoned as quickly as they arose or greatly reduced in population. Railroads brought boom and bust to towns and cities across the nation.
A large part of the effort to bring the railroad to the freight instead of the freight to the railroad culminated in the building of the first transcontinental railroad. On 1 July 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a bill authorizing the construction of a railroad between the Missouri River and California. The idea for a transcontinental railroad had been around since at least 1848. Engineers had mapped several routes by the 1850s and railroads had been built along some portions of those routes. Rivalry between railroads had prevented the completion of a unified transcontinental route, however.
The outbreak of the Civil War removed the southern routes from consideration and increased the need for a transcontinental railroad for use by the military. Lincoln designated Council Bluffs, Iowa, as the starting place for the new railroad. Two railroads worked on the transcontinental railroad: The Union Pacific built westward from Omaha, Nebraska, and the Central Pacific built eastward from Sacramento, California. The two lines met on 10 May 1869 in Promontory, Utah, where the tracks were joined with a golden spike. The telegraph spread the news nationwide.
Completion of other rail lines came soon afterward. In a year the Kansas Pacific Railroad reached Denver from Kansas City, and the Denver and Pacific line established a connection between the Kansas Pacific and the Union Pacific at Cheyenne. The Kansas Pacific - a choice property - soon became a part of the Union Pacific system. The Northern Pacific Company, chartered in 1864, moved too slowly and the Panic of '73 halted its construction at Bismarck, North Dakota. Ten years later, however, it became the second transcontinental railroad to reach the Pacific coast when its rails were laid into Puget Sound.
By 1893 the "Great Empire Builder," James J. Hill, had completed his privately constructed (i.e., without federal subsidy) Great Northern Railroad to Seattle, and before the great age of railroad building was over, the Pacific Northwest could be reached not only by the Oregon Short Line, which was an extension of the Union Pacific from its main line to Portland, but also via the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which finally reached its goal in igog at Tacoma, Washington.
The Southwest, too, had its share in the new transportation empires. From a twenty-nine-mile nucleus the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad began, in 1873, to push toward New Mexico. The line reached Albuquerque by 1882 and there connected with the Atlantic and Pacific on to Needles, California, where connections with other lines were made.
In these pioneering days, railroads often gained their rights of way by brute force, sometimes arming track-laying crews to discourage rivals. There was almost a pitched battle before the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe beat the enterprising Denver & Rio Grande through to Albuquerque by way of the Raton Pass. At another point of conflict farther north, in the narrow Royal Gorge on the Arkansas River, blockhouses were built and shots exchanged for the privilege of suspending a single line in the chasm. The combination of court action, restraint on the part of officials and a temporary lease extended by the Denver & Rio Grande to its hated rival forestalled what might have been a long, bloody private war whose prize was a bleak and awesome canyon.
Not all the rail building in this area was westward, however. The Southern Pacific Railroad (a company controlled by Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker, the "Big Four" builders of the Central Pacific) moved southeastward from San Francisco toward New Orleans. In 1883, through-service began over its Sunset Route between California and the "Crescent City." Other important lines that blanketed the West were the Frisco Line, a sprawling network of rails known as the Missouri Pacific in the Great Plains region, and the Western Pacific which, like the Central Pacific, connected Salt Lake City with San Francisco.
But trunk lines were not all it took to make a railroad system. Branch or feeder lines were also necessary. At first, stagecoaches and wagon-freighting firms served as feeders for the main railroads. Due in part to the efforts of Jay Gould, a railroad financier, literally thousands of branch-line miles were constructed to form a vast network across the West. When the great boom in railroads began at the close of the Civil War there were 3,272 miles of track west of the Mississippi ~River. By r8go, when the railroad building race began to lag (but had by no means stopped), the total mileage was a staggering 72,473.
The impact of the railroads on traveling conditions in the West was equally fantastic. Where the traveler had once had to be content with a thorough jolting in a Concord coach and indifferent fare at rough, untidy stage stations, now, in 1869, he was catapulted to luxury. There were the newly invented sleeping coaches called "Pullmans" and "Silver Palace Cars" which lived up to the name. They were richly appointed, had private toilet facilities and were equipped with individual brass spittoons. If such elegance was beyond a man's pocketbook, there were the unreserved coach accommodations which, as one traveler pointed out, allowed for great freedom of movement. And as a special inducement to attract the patronage of recently arrived emigrants from Europe, there was the emigrant car - plain, but equipped with a toilet, a coal-burning pot-bellied stove, hard seats and bunks with straw-filled bags for mattresses. Dining cars were available to all, as were trackside eating places; both offered foods of a standard never before known in the West.
Whatever the class of service, the impression left by this new mode of travel was profound. Passengers could go faster and see more in greater safety. Guidebooks, providing information about the route, towns and countryside, were available to make the trip more interesting. It is no wonder that the transcontinental railroads became the new tourist attraction.
Train robberies were more common in the past than today. Trains carrying payroll shipments were a major target. These shipments would be guarded by an expressman whose duty it was to protect the cargo of the "express car". Expressmen, conductors, and other personnel took enormous pride in their duty and had no problem with risking their lives for a shipment.
Bandits would rely on the expressman to open the safe and provide the goods. Without the combination required for the combination lock, it was almost impossible to break into the safes. However, the invention of dynamite made it much easier to break into safes and rob the train. If the outlaw was unsatisfied with the goods, passengers of the train's carriages, who were generally unarmed, would be held at gunpoint and forced to hand over any valuables they were carrying, usually in the form of jewelry or currency.
Outlaws were never known to jump from horseback onto a moving train. Usually, they would either board the train and wait for a good time to initiate the heist, or they would stop or derail the train and then begin the holdup. Famous train robbers include Bill Miner, Jesse James and Butch Cassidy. Jesse James is mistakenly thought to have completed the first successful train robbery in the American West when on July 21, 1873 the James-Younger Gang took US $3,000 from the Rock Island Railroad after derailing it southwest of the town of Adair, Iowa. The first train robbery in the American west took place on November 5, 1870 near Verdi, Nevada. Smiling Jack Davis and his band of robbers stole $40,000 from the Central Pacific Railroad.
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