Effect of Railroads on the United States

Railroads and American History

The first railroads in America were horse drawn. However, with the development of the steam engine, they quickly grew. The era of railroad building began in 1830. Peter Cooper's locomotive called the Tom Thumb was put into service and travelled 13 miles on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line. For example, over 1200 miles of railroad track was laid between 1832 and 1837. Railroads had a large and varied impact on the development of the United States. Following is a look at the effect that railroads had on the development of the United States.

Bound Counties Together and Allowed for Distant Travel

Meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869.
Meeting of the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869. Public Domain

Railroads created a more interconnected society. Counties were able to work together easier due to the decreased travel time. With the use of the steam engine, people were able to travel to distant locations much easier than if they were using only horse powered transportation. In fact,on May 10, 1869 when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined their rails at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, the entire nation was joined with 1776 miles of track. The transcontinental railroad meant that the frontier could be extended with a greater movement of population. Thus, the railroad also allowed people to change their place of living with greater ease than ever before.

Outlet for Products

The advent of a rail network expanded the available markets for goods. An item for sale in New York could now make it out west in a much quicker time. The railroads made a wider variety of goods possible for people to obtain. Thus, there was a two-fold effect on products: the sellers found new markets in which to sell their goods and individuals who lived on the frontier were able to obtain goods that were previously unavailable or extremely hard to get.

Facilitated Settlement

The railroad system allowed for new settlements to thrive along the rail networks. For example, Davis, California where the University of California Davis is located, started around a Southern Pacific Railroad depot in 1868. The end destination remained a focal point of settlement and people were able to move whole families great distances much easier than in the past. However, towns along the route also thrived. They became layover points and new markets for goods.

Stimulated Commerce

Not only did the railways provide greater opportunity through extending markets, they also stimulated more people to start businesses and thereby enter the markets. An extended marketplace provided a greater number of individuals the opportunity to produce and sell goods. Whereas an item might not have had enough demand in a local town to warrant production, the railroads allowed for the shipment of goods to a greater area. The expansion of the market allowed for greater demand and made additional goods viable.

Value in the Civil War

The railroads played a vital role in the American Civil War. They allowed the North and South to move men and equipment vast distances to further their own war aims. Because of their strategic value to both sides, they also became focal points of each side's war efforts. In other words, the North and South both engaged in battles with the design to secure different railroad hubs. For example, Corinth, Mississippi was a key railroad hub which was taken first by the Union a few months after the Battle of Shiloh in May, 1862. Later, the confederates tried to recapture the town and the railroads in October of the same year but were defeated. Another key point about the importance of railroads in the Civil War was that the North's more extensive railway system was a factor in their ability to win the war. The transportation network of the North allowed them to move men and equipment longer distances and with greater speed, thus providing them with a significant advantage.