Train Travel: The First Transcontinental Railroad

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A transcontinental railroad is a series of railroad tracks or railways that crosses several continental borders or land masses. Often, the terminals end at the continent or nation's coast or border. The transcontinental railroads can be owned by one or by several different railroad corporations depending upon the individual railroad systems' situation. In some instances, the railroads may be owned by the local or national government. The railroad and trains have quickly become a pioneering and effective way to transport people, goods, and livestock over long distances and at a fast pace. It has enhanced trade, changed the face of public transportation, and made the movement of goods and services easier than ever before. Railroads are an essential part of modern day life.


In the United States during the early 19th century, most of the transportation of products was performed via stagecoach or by individuals carrying carts on horseback. This method was time consuming and dangerous, and a limited amount of goods could be transported at one time. People would often end up missing or injured, resulting in lost income and lost trade. The demand for goods to be moved across state lines and into different territories at a faster pace and in larger amounts became so great, that a new way to do it needed to be developed. The first transcontinental railroad was constructed between the years 1863 and 1869, and was designed to join the east and west ends of the U.S. together so items could be delivered more quickly. This first railroad was known as the "Pacific Railroad" and was considered an engineering marvel.


A man by the name of George J Gould first developed the idea of transcontinental railroad systems in the early 1900s. His system began in the state of California, and stretched all the way to Ohio. Soon, more railroads were developed across the United States, connecting various places and hubs in order to provide a more effective way to get things moving. Much of the funding for the original railroads came from federal grants or large corporations. A job with the railroad company meant security and stability as an income, and thousands of men signed up to help work on them. Many war veterans and Irish immigrants helped to build the railroad system, working in difficult conditions. Exposed to the elements, most workers would put in 12 hour days and often suffered from sunburn, fatigue, and heatstroke. In some states, the Chinese also helped to build the railroads.


The transcontinental railroad changed the face of transportation. Aside from moving goods back and forth, it also provided a way for people to travel in a more cost and time effective way. People who may never have had the chance to see the USA previously could now hop on a train and travel to a new place. The average train fare was around $65 when the railroad first started serving patrons as passengers. Not only did the railroad allow for more travel, it also allowed for things like timber, crops, and livestock to be moved to different states that may not have had previous access. This opened the door for new housing developments, new commerce, and new discoveries. Because of this impact, other railroads began to flourish as well, and were built by various contractors. For example, a man by the name of John D. Spreckels privately funded his own railroad called the San Diego and Arizona Railway in 1919.


Soon, railroads were sprouting up all over the North American continent, as well as Canada, Asia, and even Africa. The Orient Express is one of the world's most well known transcontinental railroads. The United States helped to lead the way in innovation and new railway technology, inspiring many different continents to follow suit. Today, railroads are as commonplace as the compact car, and are still an effective means of transportation. These railroads have helped to settle areas of the world where it may not have ever been thought possible. There is no known scope of just how important the impact of the transcontinental railroad has had on the world, but it's clear that it made a permanent mark.


For more information about the railroads in America, please refer to the following websites:




Association of American Railroads: This organization gathers the American railroad systems together to ensure safety and unity.


Railroad Timeline History: A timeline that exhibits important milestones in American railroad history.


History of Railroads and Maps: More on the history of American railroads as well as historical maps showing the routes.


US Freight Railroads: Some information about freight-related railroads in the United States.


Railroad Maps Collection: Here, you can search by location and find the various railroad maps in the US, both past and present.


Building the Transcontinental Railroad: A look back at how the transcontinental railroad was built.


Railroad Lesson Plan: This lesson plan helps teachers educate students about the impact of the railroads in the United States.


Transcontinental Railroad History: More in-depth information about the history of the transcontinental railroad.


Southern Transcontinental Railroad: The history of the southern transcontinental railroad and its impact on travel and trade.


The Golden Spike: Utah's example of how important the railroad was to the state; gives insight into the importance of the railroads to all states.



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