Railroads in North America

Montezuma, first locomotive between Denver & Rio Grande
Montezuma, first locomotive between Denver & Rio Grande

The impact of railroads on the economic, political, social, and cultural history of North America was immense. These iron horses propelled by steam locomotives along ribbons of steel were integral to the 19th-century transportation revolution and the Industrial Revolution, binding together geographically disparate regions of the United States, Canada, and northern Mexico.

Railroads provided fast, cheap transportation for people and goods; facilitated the growth of markets, industries, migration, and organized labor; promoted westward expansion in the United States and Canada; integrated the regional mining and ranching economies of northern Mexico with U.S. markets; and, by the late 19th century, provided an important organizational model for emergent corporations.

They were also key to the emergence of the populist movement and the era of progressive reforms and were not displaced as the principal means of mechanical conveyance until the automobile became an object of mass consumption in the 1920s.

In the United States, the transportation revolution began in the 1790s–1820s with a frenzy of road and turnpike construction, continued in the 1820s–1840s with a frenzy of canal building, and reached a culmination in the 1840s–1890s with a rush of railroad building. Railroads engendered a revolution in transport arguably not supplanted until the construction of the U. S. interstate highway system in the mid-1950s.

Like the interstate highways, the railroads were built only through the active intervention of state and federal governments via massive public subsidies, tax breaks, land grants, and other major incentives to ensure their timely construction.

The first working railroad in the United States was a 13-mile stretch completed in 1830 by the Baltimore & Ohio Company. In 1836 total railroad mileage in the United States stood at around 1,000; in 1840 3,000; in 1860 30,000.

Train station
Train station

In 1864 Congress mandated a standard track gauge (width) for the projected transcontinental railroad, though the standard gauge of 4 feet, 8½ inches did not become the U.S. standard until 1886. By 1900 nearly 200,000 miles of railroad track crisscrossed the length and breadth of the country.

Densest in the industrial and agricultural heartland of the Northeast and Midwest, sparsest in the West, railroads linked all the country’s major cities and tens of thousands of towns and communities. Emblematic here was the emergence of Chicago as a major rail hub in the nation’s midsection integrating rail and water transport. Towns along railways prospered; those bypassed floundered.

The transcontinental railroad, linking the east and west coasts and built mainly by immigrant Irish and Chinese laborers under exceedingly hazardous conditions, was completed in 1869. Two decades later, another six major lines crossed the continent east to west, with termini in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

A parallel development unfolded in Canada, where a canal boom from the 1820s and 1830s was followed by a railroad boom from the 1850s. Here, too, public subsidies, activist government, and abundant immigrant labor made railroad construction possible.

The transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway, linking the eastern provinces to the Pacific port city of Vancouver, British Columbia, was completed in November 1885, with dozens of spur lines linking major cities and towns and crisscrossing the southern border with the United States in both the urban and agricultural East and prairie West.

The same happened in northern Mexico, where from the 1880s the burgeoning ranching and mining economies prompted a spate of railroad construction during the period of the Porfiriato. By the early 1900s a dense network of railroads linked northern Mexico’s ranching and mining districts with the U.S. Southwest and industrial centers of the East, South, and Midwest. Like railroads elsewhere in Latin America, funneling into port cities from Peru to Argentina, northern Mexico’s were geared mainly to export production.

This was in contrast to the United States and Canada, where railways, in addition to funneling goods to seaports for export, played a key role in integrating internal markets and facilitating migration to the interior. From the mid-1840s telegraph lines followed the rail lines, generating a revolution not only in transport, but in communications.

Another revolution occurred in timekeeping: today’s standard time zones, first implemented on November 18, 1883, by rail companies in the United States and Canada, resulted directly from the need to synchronize rail schedules.

Among the largest concentrations of private capital in the world in the late 19th century, U.S. railroad companies also pioneered important new forms of business organization. Most notable here was their pursuit of horizontal and vertical integration, in which a single company integrated “horizontally” by controlling firms engaged in the same industry (in this case, other railroad companies), and “vertically” by controlling the subsidiary industries involved in the primary industry (in this case, coalfields, iron and steel factories, and even cotton fields and textile mills for passenger car seats and draperies).

By the 1870s railroad monopolies and corruption had become the object of much popular wrath, most tangibly expressed in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and later, in the Populist Movement of the 1890s.

Many Progressive Era reforms from the 1890s, especially anti-monopoly and antitrust legislation, found a primary target in the nation’s giant railroad monopolies. For these and many other reasons, one would be hardpressed to exaggerate the centrality of railroads in the economic, political, social, and cultural history of North America.