The long struggle to connect the cities of the eastern seaboard with the frontier is a story of the triumph of man’s ingenuity in the face of geographic obstacles thought by many to be insurmountable. The railroads played a central role in this saga. Ultimately, they became the dominant force in the transportation system of the nation during the last half of the 19th century and most of the first half of the 20th century. The following activities are designed to encourage students to look more closely at the “railroad era” and to express themselves on issues related to both the building of the railroad and the preservation of its heritage.
Americans living in the middle and late 19th century saw changes in their lives that those of a previous generation could hardly have imagined. The expanding railroad meant that people could travel much faster, buy goods previously unavailable, and communicate with each other more easily. Life was speeding up, just like the locomotives that pulled increasingly larger trains. The impact of these changes varied, as did the reaction to them, depending on where and how each person lived. Progress has its benefits and costs. For the individuals described below, explain how each might have viewed the growth of the railroad. Your response for each may include both negative and positive reactions. Assume the year to be 1860. Once students have completed their responses, conduct a discussion of the pros and cons of the development of the railroads for the society in general. If desired, broaden the discussion to other technological advances such as the automobile, the airplane, or even the internet.
Have students design and draw the cover of a “Time” or “Newsweek” that would have been produced if those magazines had existed in the 1850’s when the B&O completed its mainline to the Ohio River in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). Encourage students to try to convey the importance of the event and the possibilities it opens for the future in a brief written explanation that accompanies the cover. An additional option may be to include a short article related to the cover that discusses the difficulties faced by those who built the railroad.
Schedule a visit to the B&O Railroad Museum and use the Roads to Rails Worksheet 1 as an activity for students while at the museum