A Century of Railroad Building

Locomotive at the Station

Locomotive at the Station

Successful as many of the railroads were, they had hardly yet established themselves as the one preeminent means of transportation. The canal had lost in the struggle for supremacy, but certain of these constructed waterways, particularly the Erie, were flourishing with little-diminished vigor. The river steamboat had enjoyed development in the first few decades of the nineteenth century almost as great as that of the railroad itself. The Mississippi River was the great natural highway for the products and the passenger traffic of the South Central States; it had made New Orleans one of the largest and most flourishing cities in the country, and certainly, the rich cotton planter of the fifties would have smiled at any suggestion that the “floating palaces” which plied this mighty stream would ever surrender their preeminence to the rusty and struggling railroads which wound along its banks.

This period, which may be taken as the first in American railroad development, ended about the middle of the century. It was an age of great progress but not of absolutely assured success. A few lines earned handsome profits, but in the main, the railroad business was not favorably regarded and railroad investments everywhere were held in suspicion. The condition that prevailed in many railroads is illustrated by the fact that the directors of the Michigan and Southern, when they held their annual meeting in 1853, had to borrow chairs from an adjoining office as the sheriff had walked away with their own for debt. Even a railroad with such a territory as the Hudson River Valley, and extending from New York to Albany existed in a state of chronic dilapidation; and the New York and Harlem, which had an entrance into New York City as an asset of incalculable value, was looked upon merely as a vehicle for Wall Street speculation.

Cattle Cars

Cattle Cars

Meanwhile, the increasing traffic in farm products, mules, and cattle from the Northwest to the plantations of the South created a demand for more ample transportation facilities. In the decade before the Civil War various north and south lines of railway were projected and some of these were assisted by grants of land from the Federal Government. The first of these, the Illinois Central, received a huge land-grant in 1850 and ultimately reached the Gulf at Mobile by connecting with the Mobile and Ohio Railroad which had also been assisted by Federal grants. But the panic of 1857, followed by the Civil War, halted all railroad enterprises. In the year 1856, some 3600 miles of railroad had been constructed; in 1865 only 700 were laid down. The Southern railroads were prostrated by the war and north and south lines lost all but local traffic.

After the war, a brisk recovery began and brought to the fore the first of the great railroad magnates and the shrewdest business genius of the day, Cornelius Vanderbilt. Though he had spent his early life and had laid the basis of his fortune in steamboats, he was the first man to appreciate the fact that these two methods of transportation were about to change places — that water transportation was to decline and that rail transportation was to gain the ascendancy. It was about 1865 that Vanderbilt acted on this farsighted conviction, promptly sold out his steamboats for what they would bring, and began buying railroads despite the fact that his friends warned him that, in his old age, he was wrecking the fruits of a hard and thrifty life. But Vanderbilt perceived what most American businessmen of the time failed to see, that a change had come over the railroad situation as a result of the Civil War.

Central Pacific Railroad near Salt Lake, Utah, 1865

Central Pacific Railroad near Salt Lake, Utah, 1865

The time extending from 1860 to about 1875 marks the second stage in the railroad activity of the United States. The characteristic of this period is the development of the great trunk lines and the construction of a transcontinental route to the Pacific. The Civil War ended the supremacy of the Mississippi River as the great transportation route of the West. The fact that this river ran through hostile territory — Vicksburg did not fall until July 4, 1863 — forced the farmers of the West to find another outlet for their products. By this time the country from Chicago and St. Louis eastward to the Atlantic ports was fairly completely connected by railroads. The necessities of war led to great improvements in construction and equipment. The business which had previously gone South now began to go East; New Orleans ceased to be the great industrial port of this region and business moved to St. Louis and Chicago.

Yet, though this great change in traffic routes took place in the course of the war, the actual consolidations of the various small railroads into great trunk lines did not begin until after peace had been assured. The establishment of five great railroads extending continuously from the Atlantic seaboard to Chicago and the West was perhaps the most remarkable economic development of the ten or fifteen years succeeding the war. By 1875 these five great trunk lines, the New York Central, Pennsylvania, the Erie, the Baltimore, and Ohio, and the Grand Trunk had connected their scattered units and established complete through systems.

All the vexations that had necessarily accompanied railroad traffic in the days when each one of these systems had been a series of disconnected roads had disappeared. The grain and meat products of the West, accumulating for the most part at Chicago and St. Louis, now came rapidly and uninterruptedly to the Atlantic seaboard, and railroad passengers, no longer submitted to the inconveniences of the Civil War period, now began to experience for the first time the pleasures of railroad travel. Together with the articulation of the routes, important mechanical changes, and reconstruction programs completely transformed the American railroad system. The former haphazard character of each road is evidenced by the fact that in Civil War days there were eight different gages, with the result that it was almost impossible for the rolling stock of one line to use another. A few years after the Civil War, however, the present standard gauge of four feet eight and one-half inches had become uniform all over the United States.

The malodorous “eating cribs” of the fifties and the sixties — little station restaurants located at selected spots along the line–now began to disappear, and the modern dining car made its appearance. The old rough and ready sleeping cars began to give place to the modern Pullman. One of the greatest drawbacks to antebellum travel had been the absence of bridges across great rivers, such as the Hudson and the Susquehanna.

Pullman Car Advertisement

Pullman Car Advertisement

At Albany, for example, the passengers in the summertime were ferried across, and in winter they were driven in sleighs or were sometimes obliged to walk across the ice. It was not until after the Civil War that a great iron bridge, two thousand feet long, was constructed across the Hudson at this point. On the trains, the little flickering oil lamps now gave place to gas, and the wood-burning stoves–frequently in those primitive days smeared with tobacco juice–in a few years were displaced by the new method of heating by steam.

The accidents which had been almost the prevailing rule in the fifties and sixties were greatly reduced by the Westinghouse air-brake, invented in 1868, and the block signaling system introduced somewhat later. In the ten years succeeding the Civil War, the physical appearance of the railroads entirely changed; new and larger locomotives were made, the freight cars, which during the period of the Civil War had a capacity of about eight tons, were now built to carry fifteen or twenty

The former little flimsy iron rails were taken up and were re-laid with steel. In the early seventies when Cornelius Vanderbilt substituted steel for iron on the New York Central, he had to import the new material from England. In the Civil War period, practically all American railroads were single track fines — and this alone prevented any extensive traffic. Vanderbilt laid two tracks along the Hudson River from New York to Albany, and four from Albany to Buffalo, two exclusively for freight and two for passengers. By 1880 the American railroad, in all its essential details, had definitely arrived.

But in this same period, even more sensational developments had taken place. Soon after 1865, the imagination of the American railroad builder began to reach far beyond the old horizon. Up to that time the Mississippi River had marked the Western railroad terminus. Now and then a road straggled beyond this barrier for a few miles into eastern Iowa and Missouri; but in the main, the enormous territory reaching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean was crossed only by the old trails. The one thing which perhaps did most to place the transcontinental road on a practical basis was the annexation of California in 1848, and the wild rush that took place on the discovery of the goldfields one year later had led Americans to realize that on the Pacific coast they had an empire which was great and incalculably rich but almost inaccessible.

The loyalty of California to the Northern cause in the war naturally stimulated a desire for closer contact. In the ten years preceding 1860 the importance of a transcontinental line had constantly been brought to the attention of Congress and the project had caused much jealousy between the North and the South, for each region desired to control its Eastern terminus. This impediment no longer stood in the way; early in his term, therefore, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill authorizing the construction of the Union Pacific — a name doubly significant, as marking the union of the East and the West and also recognizing the sentiment of loyalty or union that this great enterprise was intended to promote. The building of this railroad, as well as that of the others which ultimately made the Pacific and the Atlantic coast near neighbors — the Santa Fe, the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific, and the Great Northern — is described in the pages that follow. Here it is sufficient to emphasize the fact that they achieved the concluding triumph in what is certainly the most extensive system of railroads in the world. These transcontinental roads really completed the work of Columbus. He sailed to discover the western route to Cathay and found that his path was blocked by a mighty continent. But the first train that crossed the plains and ascended the Rockies and reached the Golden Gate assured thenceforth a rapid and uninterrupted transit westward from Europe to Asia.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2020.

Santa Fe Railroad 1900

Santa Fe Railroad 1900.

Also See:

Completion of the Railroad

Penetrating The Pacific Northwest

The Railroad Crosses America

Railroad Lines

Railroads & Depots Photo Gallery

About the Author: John Moody was the author of The Railroad Builders, A Chronicle of the Welding of the States, written in 1919. A Century of Railroad Building is the first chapter of the book.