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The railroad in the United States Paper

Words: 2810, Paragraphs: 1, Pages: 10

Paper type: Essay , Subject: Cornelius Vanderbilt

In the simplest manner: the railroad changed the face of a nation. The railroad in the United States changed how people traveled, did business, and how Washington governed people. The railroad created new standards and new laws that still affect the way we live today. It helped create a new type of wealth that had never been seen before and became the first “big business” in the United States. Without the railroads impact, it would be difficult to fathom where the United States and the world would be today.The “golden age” of the railroad is considered to be by many the period that stretched between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the First World War.1 Railroading from 1865 to 1929 covers the great expansion, the golden age and the beginning decline of the railroad. The emergence of the modern America, and the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States also can be seen within these dates; this emphasizes the large role that the railroads had in the industrialization of the America. It is clear that the history of the United States coincides with the history of the railroad; during these times the railroad played a vital a vital role in thebuilding of the United States. But, the relationship was symbiotic, because it is also possible to see that the direction in which the country was going played a role in how the railroad was formed, controlled, and regulated. Truly, the railroad is a form of transportation that helped make the United States what it is today.The year 1865 finally brought an end to war that had sliced a nation in half. The war, however, was not a destructive force to the railroads. “With the exception of the southern lines, American railroads were generally in excellent shape in 1865.”2 The Civil War brought new strength to the American railroads. The need to provide for the war had caused the railroads of the United States to expand by as much as 35,500 miles at the end of the war.3 The War had brought new strength to the railroads and the railroads were now standing before their golden age. This golden age began with a big bang: the completion of the transcontinental railway.The story of the transcontinental railway could very well be suited for a Hollywood movie. It involves corruption, greed, great visions, and great strength. Public demand for a transcontinental railway was originally inspired by a proposal made in 1836 by the American statesmen John Plumbe and Robert John Walker.4 The demand for therailway was later increased with the arrival of the gold rush in 1849. In 1861, the Pacific Railway Bill was passed, this bill called for the building of the transcontinental line to be done by two companies, Union Pacific Company and the Central Pacific Company. The job of the Union Pacific Company was to build west from Omaha, while the job of the Central Pacific Company was to build east from Sacramento5. The bill also called for the companies to receive a right-of-way strip for their line (and whatever they needed for rail yards, sidings, and other facilities), as well as five alternate land sections on each side of the track.6 The companies were also offered loans that went from $16,000 per mile of track in the lowlands to as much as $48,000 a mile in the mountainous regions.7The Union Pacific got of to slow start until they acquired a good engineer by thename of General Dodge, who was one of Sherman’s Civil War railroad men. UnderGeneral Dodge’s direction the work on the Union Pacific soon took on a furious pace and a military atmosphere; military preparedness and quickness were exactly what was needed to deal with the hostile Indians.Life on the Central Pacific was by no means pleasant, but they did not have much a problem with the Indians.8 However, one thing that was a problem on the Central Pacific was the lack of labor. California, being largely uninhabited at the time, did not provide a large labor resource; and so the managers of the Central Pacific had to look elsewhere for their labor needs. One of the places they looked for new labor was China. The Chinese turned out to be well suited for the job, and at one point nine-tenths of the labor force of the Central Pacific was Chinese.Eventually the two the companies came within sight of each other, and a meeting place for the two rails was designated. The meeting place chosen was a waterless basin of sagebrush just north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. This place was called Promontory Point. It was decided that the two companies would meet and there would be a greatceremony to connect the railways. The ceremony was planned, and all of the railroad officials and dignitaries came to drive in the final spike. On May 10, 1869, this event finally took place. The driving in of the final spike came with a little embarrassment: First, one of the leaders of Central Pacific went up to drive in the golden spike and missed; next, the leader of the Union Pacific stepped up to drive in the golden spike and he too missed.9 Eventually, the final spike was driven in: though it is not clear who actually did it. Despite all this, the nation celebrated for the Atlantic coast and the Pacific coast had at last become connected by rail; and the railroad now stood on threshold of its golden age.The years following the completion of the transcontinental line brought an abundance of new railways. The rail network in the United States went from 35,000 miles in 1865 to 164,000 miles in 1890. This building was brought to an all-time high, when in 1916 the total length of the rail network in the United States reached 254,000 miles.10With such a rapid pace of construction, the building in the half-century after the Civil War led to an average annual construction, of over 4,000 miles a year. Even though this rapid construction was not equally spread throughout the country, every area did see some expansion.The transcontinental rail also led to great expansion in the West. The transcontinental railway, and the railways following, brought eastern markets within a few days of western grain and cattle lands, and eventually helped create great cities in the West itself.11 The new railways of the West also brought about the virtual extermination of the buffalo. The new rails cut the herds in half and destroyed their natural habitat. It also became a game for people heading west on the railway to shoot the animal from their train window.12Now that the railroad spanned across the continent, the railroad was becoming a major player in the expansion of industry. The industry of the United States was rapidly expanding, and the railroad was becoming more than just a small factor in a great group of expanding industries. Railroads encouraged growth not only through the offering of their transport services, but also through the transportation need, of other industries. “Railroads were not only the biggest shippers of industrial products; they were also American industry’s best customers.”13 The railroads became a huge buyer of steel, coal, lumber, and oil. To say that the railroad was an important factor in the industrialization of America is a huge understatement. The railroad became the pulse of industry and was considered by many the leading factor in the expansion of industry in the United States.”While the network of rails was spreading, great financial networks were also developing.” Groups of once independent railroad companies were grabbed up and consolidated to form large railroad systems.”14 One prime example of this was The New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad, which were formed by the consolidation of about 200 originally independent lines.The large consolidation brought about the need for new standards and new technology that would help the railroad continue to grow and operate more efficiently. One of the new standards that was needed was a standard gauge for the railroads to operate on. This was needed because the expansion of the rails had now brought the need to move the freight from one line to another. This was not possible because throughout the country there were different gauges. For example in the south the popular gauge was five feet, but on other railroads like the Erie the gauge was six feet. It was decided amongst railroads that a standard must decided on, and that standard became four feet, eight and one half inches.15Another standard that was created and is still used today is standardized time. Until the movement for Standard Time, each town had its own time. “There were, for example, thirty-eight different times in the state of Wisconsin alone.” Given the amount of different times, the speed of trains, and the distance these trains traveled. This spelled one thing: complete chaos. Eventually the problem was solved in 1883, when the General Time Convention was held by the railroads. At this convention it was decided that the continental United States would be broken up into four standard time zones. People soon found it easy to set their clocks by “railroad” time, and thus the railroad standard became a national standard.Other technological innovations that were created to aid the expansion and consolidation of the railways were: the use of steel rails, the automatic coupler, and the air brake. The automatic coupler allowed a coupler to close on impact, but still be able to open from the side of the car. The air brake, invented by George Westinghouse, allowed trains to stop much quicker than they had been able to in the past.Besides bringing about new technology, the consolidation of the railways also brought about the great railroad barons. The railroad had become a likely stop for the strong businessmen interested in making millions by manipulating the rail system. But in gaining such immense power, many railroad builders and consolidators became unethical and ruthless in their business practices. Watered stock, stock market rigging, corrupt rate wars, rebating and labor violence all became part of the new railroad picture. 16Railroad barons like Jay Gould James Fisk were masters at these tricks. One example of how money was made was by “stock watering,” which was the process of increasing the number of shares of a company without adding to the company’s assets.17Perhaps one of the greatest of the great railroad barons was Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. Originally from the steamboat business, Vanderbilt gained control of such railroads as the New York Central and the Erie through ruthless business practices. A prime example of Vanderbilt’s ruthless practices is how he obtained control over the New York Central Railroad. Vanderbilt was frustrated with the current managers of the New York Central because they often bypassed his railroad when sending freight into New York City. So, Vanderbilt simply stopped shipping their freight and passengers one day. The New York Central stock rapidly began to drop on Wall Street because of Vanderbilt’s actions. Seeing that the stock was now cheap, Vanderbilt began buy up the stock while it was cheap, and the company eventually fell into his hands.18 But practices like this could only go on for so long.The railroads activities had become too corrupt for most people and were beginning to become a financial burden for many farmers and business owners. Business owners and farmers began to resent the railroad and decided that something must be done. Taking the initiative was a group called the Patrons of Husbandry, popularly known as the Grange. The Grange was originally formed as a social group to bring farmers out of the isolation of their farmhouses.19 They had picnics, suppers, and other events, that well frequently held at the local Grange Hall. However, as railroad abuse increased the group shifted from entertainment purposes to more political purposes.The Grangers bonded together to establish many things that helped farmers, but their primary purpose eventually became to bring reform to the railroads.20 The Grangers quickly grew in size and gained enough power to elect people free of “railroad influence,” in the state legislatures. They pushed for new laws that would regulate the railroads monopolies, and eventually succeeded. But the Grangers’ success only came at the state level through what were called “Granger laws.” Even though these laws were aimed to regulate monopolies, though such things as freight and passenger rates, they were easily evaded by the railroads. However, some progress had been won. The nation was beginning to shift from an attitude of laissez-faire capitalism to a more progressive state of mind.One of the biggest things people learned from the “Granger laws” was that reform of the railroads was going to have to take place on a national level. In 1885, a Senate committee conducted an investigation of railroad business practices. The final report from the committee listed the familiar abuses of the railroads, such as watered stock and unreasonably high rates. This investigation made it clear that Federal Government must do something and in 1887 it did. “The Interstate Commerce Act, in language that was perhaps deliberately vague, required that all interstate rates be “reasonable and just” and prohibited the familiar competitive practices of rebates, drawbacks, and pools.”21 The act also required that the railroad publish their rate schedules and file them with the government. An Interstate Commerce Commission was created to administer the act and enforce it. The success of the Interstate Commerce Act was short lived and was easily evaded because of its loose wording.22 In 1890 the Sherman Antitrust Act was passed, but it too failed in regulating the railroads because of loose wording.23The move for railroad regulation was ultimately lost until the arrival of Theodore Roosevelt and a strong Progressive movement. Roosevelt considered railroad regulation to be a major issue and strongly moved for the greater empowerment of the Interstate Commerce Commission. His wish was granted in 1906 when the Hepburn Act was passed. The Hepburn Act greatly extended the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission. It also abolished the granting of passes and made the laws against rebates stronger.24 Following the Hepburn Act, were more and more laws aimed at regulating therailroads. As the new regulations went into effect, the railroad slowly began to slip down hill. But concern with the regulations was turned away from with the arrival of the First World War.Many problems faced the railroads as America entered World War I in 1917. One was the increase of rail traffic caused by the war. The railroads became very busy and subsequently operating cost rose. The railroads began to lose money due to the Interstate Commerce Commission’s hold on the rates.25 Another problem that faced the railroads during World War I was that of management. Railroad executives found it very difficult to operate their rail lines together during the war. The creation of a railroad War Board was an attempt to help the situation, but it did not work very well. Eventually it was decided by the government that they must take over, so an act was passed that allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to control the movement, distribution, and exchange of railroad cars. This too failed because the commission was inept in exercising its authority. Given all the failed attempts, the government decided in 1918 to take complete control of the railroad.26 The government remained in charge of the railroad until the Transportation Act of 1920, which called for their return to private management.The future was not bright for the railroads: ever since the arrival of the First World War the railroads had experienced a general decline. This was due mostly to the development of new types of transportation. Millions now owned Henry Ford’s model T automobile, and various other cars.27 The twenties brought the arrival of motorbuses, which also took away from the railroads business. Other new forms of transportation, such as trucks and airplanes, also took their toll on the business of the railway. So, as the nation was roaring through the Twenties and heading for the Great Depression, the railroad was becoming ever increasingly a thing of the past.If there is to be an a lasting lesson from the history of the railroads from 1865-1929 it is that major industrial innovations can only live an unregulated life for so long. The United Stated was a booming country experiencing wide spread industrialization. The railroad was an essential part of this boom, but railroads had to change just as the to country had to change. The free going attitude of “laissez-faire” can only last so long in a country where equality and fairness before the law are valued. The railroads fully rode the first wave of industrialization and faded into the background when their time had come. The significance of the railroad will probably never be fully realized, but their impact will always be felt.

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The following sample is written by Matthew who studies English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan. All the content of this paper is his own research and point of view on The railroad in the United States and can be used only as an alternative perspective.

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