The Iron Horse
The development of railroads was one of the most important phenomena of the Industrial Revolution. With their formation, construction and operation, they brought profound social, economic and political change to a country only 50 years old. Over the next 50 years, America would come to see magnificent bridges and other structures on which trains would run, awesome depots, ruthless rail magnates and the majesty of rail locomotives crossing the country.
The railroad was first developed in Great Britain. A man named George Stephenson successfully applied the steam technology of the day and created the world's first successful locomotive. The first engines used in the United States were purchased from the Stephenson Works in England. Even rails were largely imported from England until the Civil War. Americans who had visited England to see new steam locomotive's were impressed that railroads dropped the cost of shipping by carriage by 60-70%.
Perhaps the greatest physical feat of 19th century America was the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. Two railroads, the Central Pacific starting in San Francisco and a new railroad, the Union Pacific, starting in Omaha, Nebraska, would build the rail-line. Huge forces of immigrants, mainly Irish for the Union Pacific and Chinese for the Central Pacific, crossed mountains, dug tunnels and laid track. The two railroads met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, and drove a last, golden spike into the completed railway.
Without the assistance of the U.S. government, railroad construction between 1860 and 1900 would have been greatly curtailed. Building a railroad was an expensive venture. Private banks, fearing the railroad companies would need a long time to pay off their debts, were reluctant to loan money to the companies. To remedy the situation, Congress provided assistance to the railroad companies in the form of land grants. The land grant railroads, receiving millions of acres of public land, sold the land to make money, built their railroads, and contributed to a more rapid settlement of the West. In the end, four out of the five transcontinental railroads were built with help from the federal government.