By Charles Austin Beard and Mary Ritter Beard, 1921
Opening Railways to the Pacific – A decade before the Civil War, the importance of rail connection between the East and the Pacific Coast had been recognized. Pressure had already been brought to bear on Congress to authorize the construction of a line and to grant land and money in its aid. Both the Democrats and Republicans approved the idea, but it was involved in the slavery controversy. Indeed it was submerged in it. Southern statesmen wanted connections between the Gulf and the Pacific through Texas, while Northerners stood out for a central route.
The North had its way during the war. Congress, by legislation initiated in 1862, provided for the immediate organization of companies to build a line from the Missouri River to California and made grants of land and money loans to aid the enterprise. The Western end, the Central Pacific Railroad, was laid out under the supervision of Leland Stanford. It was heavily financed by the Mormons of Utah and the state government, the ranchmen, miners, and businessmen of California, and it was built principally by Chinese labor. The Eastern end, the Union Pacific Railroad, starting at Omaha, Nebraska, was constructed mainly by veterans of the Civil War and immigrants from Ireland and Germany. In 1869 the two companies met near Ogden, Utah, and the driving of the last spike, uniting the Atlantic and the Pacific, was the occasion of a great demonstration.
Other lines to the Pacific were projected at the same time, but the panic of 1873 checked railway enterprise for a while. With the revival of prosperity at the end of the decade, construction was renewed with vigor, and 1883 marked a series of railway triumphs. In February, trains ran from New Orleans, Louisiana, through Houston, San Antonio, Texas, and Yuma, Arizona, to San Francisco, California, due to a union of the Texas Pacific with the Southern Pacific Railroad and its subsidiary corporations. In September, the last spike was driven in the Northern Pacific Railroad at Helena, Montana.
Lake Superior was connected with Puget Sound. The waters explored by Louis Joliet and Father Jaques Marquette were joined to the waters plowed by Sir Francis Drake while he searched for a route worldwide. That same year, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad opened a third line to the Pacific, connecting Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Needles, California, with San Francisco. The fondest hopes of railway promoters seemed to be realized.
Western Railways Precede Settlement – Railways followed population and markets in the Old World and the Atlantic seaboard. In the Far West, railways usually preceded the people. Railway builders planned cities on paper before they laid tracks connecting them. They sent missionaries to spread the “Western opportunity” gospel to people in the Middle West, Eastern cities, and Southern states. Then they carried their enthusiastic converts’ bags and baggage in long trains to the distant Dakotas and still farther afield. So the development of the Far West was not left to the tedious processes of time. It was pushed by men of imagination — adventurers who made a money-making romance and dreamed of an empire unequaled by many past kings. These empire-builders bought railway lands in huge tracts; they got more from the government; they overcame every obstacle of cañon, mountain, and stream with the aid of science; they built cities according to the plans made by the engineers.
Having the towns ready and railway and steamboat connections formed with the rest of the world, they carried out the people to use the railways, the steamships, the houses, and the land. This way, “the frontier speculator paved the way for the frontier agriculturalist who had to be near a market before he could farm.” The spirit of this imaginative enterprise, which laid out railways and towns in advance of the people, is seen in an advertisement of that day:
“This extension will run 42 miles from York, northeast through the Island Lake country, and will have five good North Dakota towns. The stations on the line will be well-equipped with elevators and constructed and ready for operation at the commencement of the grain season. Prospective merchants have actively secured desirable locations at the different towns on the line. There are still opportunities for hotels, general merchandise, hardware, furniture, drug stores, etc.”
Among the railway promoters and builders in the West, James J. Hill, of the Great Northern and allied lines, was one of the most forceful figures. He knew that tracks and trains were useless without passengers and freight, without a population of farmers and town dwellers. He, therefore, organized publicity in the Virginias, Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Nebraska especially. He sent out agents to tell the story of Western opportunity in this vein:
“You see your children come out of school with no chance to get farms of their own because the cost of land in your older part of the country is so high that you can’t afford to buy land to start your sons out in life around you. They have to go to the cities to make a living, become laborers in the mills, or be hired as farmhands. There is no future for them there. If you are doing well where you are and can safeguard your children’s future and see them prosper around you, don’t leave here. But if you want independence, if you are renting your land, if the money-lender is carrying you along, and you are running behind year after year, you can do no worse by moving… You farmers talk of free trade and protection and what this or that political party will do for you. Why don’t you vote for a homestead for yourself? That is the only thing Uncle Sam will ever give you. Jim Hill hasn’t an acre of land to sell you. We are not in the real estate business. We don’t want you to go out West and make a failure of it because the rates at which we haul you and your goods make the first transaction a loss. We must have landless men for a manless land.”
Unlike steamship companies stimulating immigration to get the fares, Hill sought permanent settlers who would produce, manufacture, and use the railways to exchange. Consequently, he fixed low rates and let his passengers take a lot of livestock and household furniture for free. By doing this, he made an appeal that eager families answered. In 1894 the vanguard of home seekers left Indiana in 14 passenger coaches, filled with men, women, and children, and 48 freight cars carrying their household goods and livestock. In the ten years that followed, 100,000 people from the Middle West and the South, responding to his call, went to the Western country, where they brought eight million acres of prairie land under cultivation. When Hill got his people on the land, he took an interest in everything that increased their labor productivity. Was the output of food for his freight cars limited by bad drainage on the farms?
Hill then interested himself in practical ways of ditching and tiling. Were farmers hampered in hauling their goods to their trains by bad roads? In that case, he urged the states the improvement of highways. Did the traffic slacken because the food shipped was not the best quality? Then livestock must be improved, and scientific farming promoted. Did the farmers need credit? Banks must be established close at hand to advance it. Hill actively participated in all conferences on scientific farm management, conservation of natural resources, banking, and credit concerning agriculture and industry. His was the long vision, seeing in conservation and permanent improvements the foundation of prosperity for the railways and the people.
Indeed, he neglected no opportunity to increase the traffic on the lines. He wanted no empty cars running in either direction and no wheat stored in warehouses for the lack of markets. So he looked to the Orient and Europe as an outlet for the surplus of the farms. He sent agents to China and Japan to discover what American goods and produce those countries would consume and what manufactured they had to offer Americans in exchange. To open the Pacific trade, he bought two ocean monsters, the Minnesota and the Dakota, thus preparing for emergencies West and East. When some Japanese came to the United States on their way to Europe to buy steel rails, Hill showed them how easy it was to purchase in this country and ship by way of American railways and vessels. So the railway builder and promoter, who helped to break the virgin soil of the prairies, lived through the pioneer epoch and into the age of great finance. Before he died, he saw the wheat fields of North Dakota linked with the spinning jennies of Manchester and the docks of Yokohama.