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Railroad Westward Expansion from 1860 to 1890

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Published: Wed, 30 Aug 2017

The history of America is grounded in the concepts of immigration, expansion, and economic empowerment. European settlers along the East Coast developed a new doctrine called the ‘manifest destiny’ that would guide their path. This ideology posited that the United States was destined to expand across the continent, displacing the indigenous communities. The project to join the East and West Coast was pursued on different fronts. Development of the railroad network spearheaded the process as it opened up new lands, connected major cities, and also enabled agricultural and economic growth (Borneman 14). The railroad not only served as a means of transport but also marked the route for the dissemination of inventions, culture, and knowledge gained over the years.

Although the railroad is mainly recognized for enabling agriculture, transport, and industrialization, it also played a significant role in facilitating administration. The settlers often faced violent resistance from the natives (Wolmar 18). In fact, several Red Indian communities openly attacked and even sabotaged settler activities to scatter the expansion. Thus, there was a need to set down rules of engagement (Wilhelm 40). The railroad played its role by opening up transportation into the interior allowing for the colonizers to establish administrative frameworks. Mapping out the rail routes also required collaboration with the native tribes. Therefore, settlers negotiated and signed treaties with native chiefs in their respective territories. For instance, the native tribes of Osage, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Pawnee occupied the plains of Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska. The government negotiated a battery of treaties largely dealing with the transfer of land either of settlement or rail tracks. Famous ones include the Sturges Osage (1868) and Drum Creek Treaties among others (Wilhelm 46). After signing the agreements, administrative posts would be established mainly along the railroads.

With time, the posts turned into settlements and small towns. These small rural towns served by the railroad attracted increasingly larger populations that transformed them into cultural hotspots and centers of learning (Hagger 29). Around the 1870s, Cincinnati and St. Louis had attracted a significant population including workers and farmers (PBS Map). Individuals from different cultural backgrounds mingled and interacted to form a unique culture. Various types of food, music, folklore, literature, language, dressing, farming, buildings, and relationships all combined to create the American identity. By 1890, over ten cities with populations of over 100, 000 people had emerged on the westward expansion route along the railway tracks (PBS Map). Cities also served by waterways experienced more rapid growth economically and population-wise (Borneman 191). With time, these cities and rail transport became core elements of the American identity.

The westward expansion also tallied with increased agricultural and industrial inventions. Some of the key discoveries in the century included the reaper (invented 1831), the combine harvester (1834), and the steel plow (1837). These implements were essential to agriculture and allowed the expansion of the railroad to spread and disseminate the technology. For instance, the McCormick’s reaper was bulky and required to be transported from Virginia where it was manually assembled into the farmlands located further westward in the states of Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, and Ohio (Borneman 119). Railroads offered the best method to transport them. Increased agricultural output resulting from the enhanced technology further increased transportation needs. Laying rail tracks was considerably cheaper than digging out roads and or water canals (Wolmar 14). As such, inventions and railroads had a mutual relationship in that the new creations distributed by the railroad further increased demand for transportation.

Furthermore, increased agricultural production spurred invention of more efficient industrial processes to serve the growing masses. This necessitated the railroad to connect not only major farming areas that supplied raw materials but also industrial cities. Many industries in the food processing sector would emerge driven by inventions in that direction. The mass production of steel, glass and other products stimulated other industries. For instance, availability of steel allowed for new approaches in architectural designs, more so, in multi-story buildings. Buildings such as the Trinity Church in Boston and the Philadelphia City Hall were designed and constructed in the 1870s. The railroads allowed for convenient transportations of construction materials such as steel and bricks. Consequently, inventions in the architectural industry and building and construction would follow the rail tracks westward. Although New York introduced the skyscrapers, the invention would be mastered in Chicago in the 1880s and 90s led by pioneer architects such as William L. Jenney (1832-1907) and Daniel H. Burnham (1846-1912) at the Chicago College of Architecture and the Arts (Hagger 101). As the rail extended further westward, so did the skyscraper design. By 1890s, other cities such as St Louis and San Francisco had their skyscrapers as the railroad connected the East and West Coasts.

To summarize, one can say that the railroad has played an integral part in the growth of America. Specifically, between 1869 and 1890, it hastened the westward expansion that allowed the creation of more settlements in the Midwestern plains all through to the West Coast. The rail route also served a significant role in designating administrative posts and even urban settlements that later evolved into the major cities. The majority of the factors that make America what it is today including technology, democracy, and a vibrant culture can all be linked to the railroad network created by the westward expansion policy.

Word count: 870

Works Cited

Borneman, Walter, Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroads West. New York: Little Borneman. 2014. Print. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=R0oeAwAAQBAJ&lpg=PP1&dq=America’s%20Race%20to%20Bring%20the%20Railroads%20West&pg=PT20#v=onepage&q&f=false

Hagger, Nicholas, The Secret American Dream: The Creation of a New World Order with the Power to Abolish War, Poverty, and Disease. New York: Duncan Baird. 2013. Print. PBS Map, Westward Expansion 1860-1890. WGBH Educational Foundation. 2010. https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/asset/akh10_int_expansion/. Accessed. 23 Feb. 2017.

Wilhelm, Robert, The Bloody Century: True Tales of Murder in 19th Century America. Night Stick Press. 2014. Print.

Wolmar, Christian, The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America. New York: Public Affairs. 2013. Print.


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