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The Transcontinental Railroad and Its Impact on America’s Economy

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In the mid 1800’s, the Pacific Railway Act was signed by President Lincoln towards the end of his term with hopes to connect the eastern and western hemispheres of the United States by a railroad. The breakout of the Civil war had conflicted the ideas of major railroad construction because of the severity of the split nation. Smaller railroads were built connecting the north, south, and midwest but transportation of goods throughout the country was a time consuming process. After Lincoln signed the Act, the first steps were taken towards improving the country. In itself, the connection of the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific indubitably led the United States toward smoother industrialization along with creating a stronger economy, more jobs, more efficient transportation, westward expansion, and domination in the natural resource industries.

To Begin, the old English Proverb that states “Many hands makes light work” proves to be true when discussing the topic of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Transcontinental Railroad created many jobs in the 19th century as it took many long days to complete. Luckily, many immigrant and emigrant hands from Eurrope, China, and the United States were drawn out from the construction of the railroad and employed on the working frontier.[footnoteRef:0] When the Union Pacific Company and Central Pacific company were called to action, the government became more involved in economically supporting the railroad. Parts of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad underwent construction in different areas of the country soon after the act was signed. Congress was overseeing the progression of both railroad companies and generously granted a sum of approximately 50 million dollars to both companies. The government’s willingness to support the railroad was met with strike and stubbornness from the formally hired irish laborers. Majority of the labor on parts of the railroad came from Irish Immigrants who came from the Northern slums with low paying jobs. All though unskilled and illiterate, the Irish were willing and cut out for the work but their undisciplined drunken behavior led to strike and a halt on track progress. Unfortunately, labor shortage struck the co-owners of the companies, leaving them with little option. With doubt in their minds, the bosses turned towards Chinese immigrant labor due to their presence in San Francisco at the time. In San Francisco, chinese men and women were given low paying dirty jobs such as servants, cooks and gardeners. Through word of mouth, the Chinese immigrants became aware of the job opportunities on the railroad from Chinese merchants dispersing pamphlets back to their home country and throughout San Francisco.[footnoteRef:3] As more and more Chinese immigrated and joined the construction of the railroad, they proved themselves to be hard workers and capable of the most strenuous jobs.The majority of the Central Pacific’s track crews were Chinese immigrants, many of them shipped over from China expressly for railroad construction. The Central Pacific no longer relied on what was left of the Irish Immigrants because of the usefulness of the Chinese laborers. The Chinese laborers spoke little english but made adjustments for their disadvantages. The Chinese workers formed labor gangs and elected one man to receive and translate orders from Crocker, distribute and collect pay, and manage food expenses. The efficiency and independence of the Chinese in their new work environment contributed largely to the termination of the labor shortage. The relationship between the Immigrants and the Railroad was directly proportional. As more Immigrants were given jobs, the faster construction went. This relationship was positive because the Immigrants needed jobs and the companies needed loyal workers. By the end of 1865, around seven thousand Chinese laborers had taken up new jobs on the Central Pacific Railroad and were hard at work.[footnoteRef:5] The slowed construction of the railroad led to a demand for immigrant labor which ultimately ended up in the Chinese immigrants benefiting from more opportunities and jobs simply by moving to America. It is widely known and recognized that without them (immigrants), the Transcontinental Railroad would have remained a dream, but their endurance and perseverance did great things for the Nation.

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad directly impacted the United States in terms of natural resource abundance and shipping. Before the railroad was constructed, there was clear separation between the markets in the East and West. At the time, the North and South were based on Agriculture and Textile which was beneficial because they were geographically in line and shipped textiles and goods between each other. The railroad introduced the states west of the Mississippi river into the Industrial relationship going on in the East. In California, farms and factories were able to sell to the successful markets in the east and surpass the Rockies. Surpassing the Rocky mountains and other areas of the west made it possible for other mountainous states such as Nevada. Companies that owned mines in Nevada were now offered the opportunity to dig more common metal ores like copper and iron to ship east for smelting because of the Railroad.[footnoteRef:8] Before construction, Nevada mine owners were stuck digging for rare and less common ores like gold and silver because it is what brought them the most profit. Unfortunately, the price to transport common reliable ores like copper was too high, so business owners only sent the best of what they could find if they were lucky enough. The Transcontinental Railroad made it possible for the mine owners to transport the valuable and common ores because transportation and cost was no longer such a burden. This meant the companies were making the most out of their businesses and no longer being selective of their own products as a result of the available railroad line. Across the country, copper soon became an important resource drawing investors attention in the east because of its involvement in electrical delivery systems whose generators relied on copper. Not far from Nevada, other states benefited from the railroad such as Wyoming and Colorado. Both Colorado and Wyoming were given the opportunity to export their products just as Nevada was. The two states had the possibility to ship coal and beef smoother now since construction of the railroad was complete.[footnoteRef:10] As more resources became available for cheaper more efficient transport, the industries in the East and West prospered because of the natural resources being shipped back and forth. The resources in the West that were once limited and expensive to transport were now in abundance for the Industrial processing plants in the East. As expected, the Transcontinental Railroad dominated trade and transportation in the United States for fifty years to come because of its success. Without the railroad, the country would not have progressed in their industrial fields due to the separation of the Eastern and Western markets.

The development of the Transcontinental Railroad was a key factor in opening up the west for America and its citizens. In the Early 1800’s, ideas of Manifest Destiny flooded the minds of Americans east of the Mississippi River. Manifest Destiny was the belief that expanding westward and claiming as much land as possible was the duty of the American Citizen. Before the construction of the railroad, those who sought to complete Manifest destiny and move out West were limited. Due to limited technology, citizens in the East were forced to go through the midwest by stagecoach, traveling by boat through panama, or sailing around the southern tip of America simply to travel westward. Many believers in Manifest Destiny struggled to complete their aspirations because of the multiple risks. Stagecoach had been the most common option, but the passengers were prone to violent Cheyenne Indian attacks.[footnoteRef:12] The completion of the railroad eliminated the risks for the eatern settlers by physically providing a better path. Many people saw the completion of the railroad as their chance to practice their belief and farm new land. The trip across the country by the transcontinental line had now turned into a relaxing excursion instead of a grueling threshold. Journey by stagecoach line was unreliable and took an extremely long time due to unpredictable factors like the condition of the horses and resource shortages. Travelers had to pick and choose what to bring so resources were already limited. The non stop, one way, railroad line took unpredictable factors and eliminated them from the equation. What used to take six to eight weeks, turned into an eight day journey along with stops. Travelers of the railroad used to say that the trip was so fast that “you don’t even have time to take a bath”. As stated Previously, the journey westward before the railroad was long and dangerous. Within a decade before the completion of the railroad, 300,000 settlers had completed the journey westward completing their hopes of Manifest Destiny. In comparison, the success and future of the railroad proved itself shortly after opening its passenger service. One year after its opening, 150,000 passengers traveled from the East on the newly laid railroad, taking around a week and a day to arrive. Within its first year of operation, the Transcontinental Railroad had transported approximately half the amount of passengers and took a decade less to do so. The drastic difference in years and passenger transport amount before the railroad and after prove how big of an impact the railroad had on westward expansion. What took 10 years without the railroad was halfway surpassed in 1 year with the help of the railroad. Manifest Destiny became more efficient due to the completion of the railroad. As more people arrived in the west, new territories were claimed and industrialization in those new territories begun, thus expanding the nation and its size.

Along with the growth in industry and westward expansion, the transcontinental railroad stimulated the American economy by making freight expenses cheaper. More money was being saved by companies, individuals, and by the nation. Before the railroad was built, the cost for humans to travel the continent from one corner to another was around $1,000, arrival not guaranteed. In the June of the railroads birth, it cost $136 for a first class seat, $110 for a second class seat, and $65 for a third class or emigrant seat. [footnoteRef:16] What used to cost over a thousand dollars was now limited to less than one hundred dollars for basic seating. The rich, middle, and poor class citizens could travel at a cost that was convenient to them just as society has to this day and age. Non living items like mail,books,and popular magazines were overpriced and took forever to arrive. These items were sent at a dollar per ounce up until the use of the tracks. The line shortened the arrival time and made it possible to send books, mail, and magazines all at the cost of just pennies. The transcontinental line had made way for a continent wide economy. Completion of the railroad assisted towards the growth of new cities and development of their infrastructure.[footnoteRef:18] The money that the government put towards the railroad did not go to waste. The input of 50 million dollars invested in the mid 1800’s was matched in the form of transport. By 1880, more than 50 million dollars in freight was transported annually from the East coast to the West coast.

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad was a major keystone in the 19th century. On May 10th, 1869, the Central Pacific railroad and Union Pacific railroad had met at Promontory, Utah to lay its last spike and finish the job. The last spike laid in the track was named the Golden spike not only because of its driving into the dirt, but mainly because of the significance it had behind it. The last piece of the long project resembled all of the dedication put into the railroad and the future that was ahead of the project. A large celebration was casted in Promontory, Utah as the track was undergoing completion. At the Golden spike ceremony, confederate soldiers and union soldiers stood side by side, immigrants and whites cheered in the crowd, and business owners congratulated each other on what was to come from this railroad. The East and West had been connected and so had the citizens living in it. The Transcontinental Railroad had been the driving force leading the United states towards more efficient westward transportation, more jobs, a stronger economy and a boost in industries. The Railroad had been considered “The Eighth Wonder of the World” and “The Greatest Achievement ever”. Both titles earned rightfully so.

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