There were numerous revolutionary inventions that contributed to the giant leap made by some nations during the Industrial Revolution. From inventions in the textile industry to inventions in transportation, these many innovations played a central role in the rise of the industrial nations. Among the significant inventions that contributed foremost to the rise of nations such as the United States, the railroad stands out.
The railway system originated in the European nation, England, which had a dense population confined to a small geographic area. This was not the situation in the United States; however, this did not stop the railroad from reaching the Americas in the early 1800s. Unlike the railroad system in England, which was allotted a large budget and which had relatively little land to cover, railroads in America had to meet the demands of a population that was greatly dispersed across larger distances. They had to meet this goal on a limited budget. Though railroad companies experienced remarkable success in both situations, they were especially successful in the young United States. Before the Civil War, and even in the era that followed, the railway system played an important role in the transportation, expansion and economy of the United States.
Before the introduction of the railroad into American society, transportation across land was slow and dangerous. Railroads carried more goods and people across larger distances at a much faster rate of speed than any other method of transportation that existed at that time. The confines of the railroad car protected goods and travelers from the turbulence of the changing weather and terrain, as well as from the dangerous animals and criminals that might be encountered along its trails.
In only 60 years, the United States railway system expanded from a minor 23 miles of track to an estimated 166,703 miles of track. This expansion made transportation cheaper. With the reduction of transportation costs came the increase in the volume of postal traffic. The price of postage dropped from five cents for 300 miles to three cents for every 3000 miles, a dramatic decline in only a few years.1 Soon after, the railroad become the sole transporter of approximately two-thirds of all American commerce to and from the West.
Along with the increased volume of goods that could be transported, the railroads also increased the efficiency of postal service because of its reliability. Canals and wagons pulled by horses along a trail were the major forms of communicating and transportation before the boom of the railroads.
Unfortunately, they could often be set back by undesirable weather conditions such as storms, high water levels, and low water levels.2 When the railroads became the major form of transportation, travel became more efficient because “railroads go everywhere, they carry everything, and they perform their transportation services without interruption at all seasons of the year.”3 It was with this more efficient form of transportation that communication and trade became more vast and reliable, but it had other far reaching effects.
Before the railroads there were approximately 13 million people living in the United States, and the majority of them lived east of the Mississippi River.4 This was evident by the location of the larger cities in the United States. Of the five cities in the country with a population of more than 250,000 people before the 1930s, none of them lay west of the Mississippi.5 This was soon to change with the building of the first passenger train tracks to head west. According to the Poyntz Tylers text, “the railroads took the small towns with lied along its tracks and turned them into centers of industry.”6
It was the railroads that facilitated the expansion west. The first states and major cities of the United States were all located on some body of water, be it lake, river, or ocean. The railroads made it possible for the new states that lay inland to become major centers of trade and industry with their increase in population: “The railroads opened this area partly by making it reasonably accessible to settlers.”7
Chicago, Illinois is an example of one of the new cities that was located inland that benefited from the coming of the railroads. In 1858 the Gelena and Chicago Union Railroad opened in Chicago, connecting it to the states out east and west. Within the next 15 years Chicago became the center of 10 major railroad lines. This massive increase helped transform Chicago into the largest populated city in Illinois and the state’s leading industrial city.
Although the railroads contributed significantly to other areas of life in the United States, they probably had their greatest effects on the economy: “The railroads began to have a revolutionary effect on the American economy in the decade of the 1850s.”8 Alfred Chandler argues that “So great are their railroads benefits that, if the entire cost of railroads between the Atlantic and western States had been levied on the farmers of the central west, their proprietors could have paid it and been immensely the gainers.”9 As stated before, because the railway system reduced transportation costs and minimized distance as a barrier, it became the major form of transporting goods.
The shift in the importance of the railroads affected nearly all methods of business. The first of these would be the shift of the western states to mass production. Before the railroad boom, farmers could only produce the amount of crops that would be in demand in nearby areas because shipping the crops out east could cost more than they would be able to profitably pay. With the railroad boom, there was a huge increase in what could be transported to the eastern market. Therefore farmers out west began to try to maximize their production. An example of this is the production of wheat in the top five agricultural states in the mid 1800s. In the 1850s, these states produced less than 40,000,000 bushels of wheat, but by the 1860s that number doubled to almost 80,000,000 bushels.10 It also had a positive effect on the cattle business, allowing ranchers to increase their livestock numbers.
This mass production of goods greatly helped the farmers because with the opening of new markets, they could produce and sale more at higher prices. This gave the western farmers as a whole a multi million dollar annual profit. With this new incentive, the level of production reached a height that was unknown anywhere else in the world. This is where the mid-west got its name “The Bread Basket of the World.” New world markets were opened out east for these farmers and soon the majority of what they produced was put on trains and shipped to the east coast where it was then put on boats and shipped over seas.
The trains increased the amount of production in other areas besides agriculture. The mining industry also benefited from the railroads. With the expansion of the railroads, there was a greater demand for resources like iron, coal, glass, and rubber.11 This was evident in the huge increase of mining between 1847 and 1859. During this 12 year period, the tons of mining increased from 2.7 million to 9.1 million.12 Along with the increase in the need for different resources is the increase in the number of jobs involving the trains and the areas around them.
The trains did not only help the American economy, even though it was one of the key beneficiaries. Transcontinental trade also realized marked increases due to the reduction of transportation costs. On the average, goods shipped from west to east increased in price due to the larger market, while goods going east to west decreased in price because it retained the same market but could now get them there for a lot less. As a result, more goods were available, helping both manufactures and farmers in the west and the east. This increase in goods would then impact the market in Europe.
While the railroad of today seems inconsequential to the major American economy, the railroads or early America had an effect on almost all aspects of American life. Making more areas accessible, railroads opened new markets, sparking a greater rate of expansion in the country. Because there were a number of facilitators to early American economic expansionism, the phenomenal profit increases of this booming period can not be credited entirely to the railroads; however, “it is safe to say that one half if this sum is due to the influence of railroads.”13 So indeed, it was the iron horse that threw the country on its back and carried it forward.
Stovor, John F. American Railroads. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Tyler, Poyntz, ed. Outlook for the Railroads. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1960.
Wolf, Winfried. Car Mania: A Critical History of Transport. Chicago: Pluto Press, 1996.
Chandler, Alfred D., ed. The Railroads. Chicago: Harcourt, Bruce ; World Inc., 1965