The creation of the new transportation system in the 19th century is fairly regarded as the turning point in U.S. history. Railroads caused a revolution in the United States, as well as in the hearts and minds of Americans. Today, it is difficult to imagine the Industrial Revolution without railroads. Yet, at that time, the construction and operation of the Transcontinental Railroad sounded like an ambitious dream that would never come true. Railroads set the stage for the rapid economic development in the United States. They created favorable conditions for interstate trade, brought customers and merchants to one another, fostered healthy market competition, and encouraged the emergence of new business forms. Overall, railroads launched a chain reaction of major economic and social improvements, which eventually transformed the U.S. into the world’s greatest power.
The history of railroads dates back to the 16th century. At that time, the mining industry in Europe used rails to transport coal from its mines to customers (Matusitz, 2009). Still, it is not until the 19th century that railroads became an accepted means of transportation for humans (Matusitz, 2009). The first railroads in America were launched in 1829. They became a major driver behind the most astonishing achievements in the U.S. economy and social life. As Matusitz (2009) writes,
the railroad system – improving transportation, communication, and technology to such a point that we can call it a revolution – helped settle and expand America’s borders further to the west, increased and improved economic development and communication, as well as labor and immigration, introduced new management policies, and advanced technology. (p. 452) Not surprisingly, railroads are claimed to have become the beginning of a major economic, technological, and transportation breakthrough in the U.S.
One of the most visible effects of railroads was on the national economy. Railroads helped the country grow, by facilitating interstate trade and creating favorable conditions for the development of new business relations and forms. According to PBS (n.d.), during the first ten years after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, the cost of the goods shipped to customers across the U.S. reached an unbelievable $50 million. Railroads opened new markets for businesses and consumers. Not surprisingly, with the construction of railroads, the U.S. entered the era of the manufacturing boom (PBS, n.d.). It gave business owners greater opportunities to sell their products, thus increasing their revenues and profits. Higher levels of production were accompanied by significant improvements in the labor market, as the rates of unemployment were substantially reduced. Certainly, only businesses that offered high-quality products and services could survive the growing market competition. Therefore, railroads also motivated businesses to improve and diversify their product options, thus setting a new economic agenda in the U.S.
Railroads contributed to the rapid advancement of U.S. agriculture. Under the impact of the railroad system, the amount of farmland in America increased by almost one-third (Atack & Margo, 2011). The fact is that railroads facilitated the movement of people and resources across the U.S. More people were willing to settle in new lands and establish themselves as prospective farmers. In many respects, the railroad system in America was a significant factor of change in national agriculture, as newcomers transformed the newly acquired lands into a productive economic resource (Atack & Margo, 2011). Agricultural lands became a vital piece of domestic capital, without which the U.S. would have never accomplished its economic mission (Atack & Margo, 2011). Railroads as a new means of transportation eliminated time and distance barriers. As a result, farmers could easily and quickly expand their presence in newly cultivated lands (Atack & Margo, 2011).
Apart from agriculture, the railroad authorities also actively promoted the development and use of the lands located alongside the tracks (TDL, n.d). Railroads had to rely on a solid business and service infrastructure, which is why railway companies encouraged individuals to build houses around railroads and railway stations, as well as open new enterprises and business entities to serve the needs of passengers (TDL, n.d.). Thus, the development of railroads was accompanied by unprecedented urbanization that greatly helped in the U.S.’s economic and social growth. For example, the number of people living in Kansas increased more than 5 times in only 20 years (TDL, n.d). Those people worked hard to develop and strengthen the American economy. Effective economic growth created new conditions for a positive social change.
Railroads greatly helped to create a new, innovative image of the U.S. With the help of railroads, U.S. citizens became much more mobile (Matusitz, 2009). They caused a dramatic shift in public mentality, making speed and transportation available and affordable to most people. Unfortunately, the negative effects of railroads on Native Americans and the environment cannot be ignored. However, those complexities further motivated railroad companies and businesses to pursue safer workplace and environmental practices (Matusitz, 2009). Today, railroads are losing their popularity, as airplanes are becoming an accepted means of transportation. Nevertheless, the contribution they have made in the U.S.’s economic and social growth will not be forgotten.
To conclude, railroads have played a major role in advancing the American economy. They caused a major revolution in public mentality. Railroads created better conditions for interstate trade and the development of new business forms. They helped to bring consumers closer to business owners. They greatly contributed to the development of agriculture. Railroad companies actively promoted the development and use of the lands along the railroad lines. They launched a chain reaction of positive changes that ultimately transformed the U.S into the major economic power.
- Atack, J. & Margo, R.A. (2011). The impact of access to rail transportation on agricultural improvement. The Journal of Transport and Land Use, 4(5), 5-18.
- Matusitz, J. (2009). The impact of the railroad on the American society: A communication perspective on technology. Pasos, 7(3), 451-460.
- PBS. (n.d.). The impact of the Transcontinental Railroad. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/general-article/tcrr-impact/.
- TDL. (n.d.). The railroads and the West. Retrieved from http://tdl.org/txlor- dspace/bitstream/handle/2249.3/174/03_rlrds_west.htm?sequence=6.