Railroad employment rosters included hundreds of jobs performed by men and women from every conceivable background. The impact they had on our society was immense, both in terms of actually building the first railroads through the wilderness and contributing to its growth into the first “big business”. American life was changed in a variety of ways by the development of the railroad industry. By 1860 there were 30,000 miles of track in the United States, with the B&O in full operation to its original destination at the Ohio River in Wheeling, Va. (later W. Va.) and links connecting it to Cincinnati and St. Louis. Steam driven locomotives were the most powerful machines that Americans had ever seen, and the idea of being at the controls, or stoking the firebox as it rolled down the tracks, captivated the imagination of everyone who heard that distant whistle or stood on a train platform as a steamer approached.
While there was a pause in the expansion of the civilian rail industry when the Civil War erupted, the United States government did extend lines into the south to facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. As the war ended, railroad companies hired thousands of workers and proceeded to double the track mileage during the next eight years. By 1893, the nation’s railroads were operating 181,000 miles of track. It was a system that linked the cities and towns of the vast nation, from coast to coast.
Clearly, the human and financial costs of building a transcontinental rail system were enormous. However, the dangers of construction and maintenance gradually improved. Workers fought hard for better wages and safer working conditions, sometimes resorting to violence to express their dissatisfaction. There were excesses on both sides during a long struggle. The railroad companies were not often receptive to the demands of their workers, but they eventually yielded ground as many Americans came to believe that hard working fellow citizens deserved a fair share of the wealth being enjoyed by a relative few “railroad barons”. The power of public opinion also prompted government action that was more sympathetic to the interests of industrial workers. Although the railroad industry continued to wield great power, the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 signaled a willingness on the part of government to harness some of that power through regulations. An important part of this trend was a general recognition of their workers right to organize unions to represent their interests.
The impact of the railroads was so pervasive that it is difficult (but interesting) to imagine our country without them. They stimulated economic growth by opening up vast areas of the West to settlement. Farming and ranching on the Great Plains were more profitable because wheat and cattle could be transported cheaply to distant markets. This created new flour-milling and meat packing industries. The railroad driven westward expansion also benefited city merchants, since the volume of their business increased dramatically because of the growing rural demand for consumer goods.
Our culture changed as the pace of life accelerated with the advent of a national rail system. For example, while it took three weeks to travel from St. Louis to San Francisco by stagecoach, a traveler could get on a train in Philadelphia be in San Francisco in one week. Americans fell in love with rail travel. Greater speed and mobility translated into a marked increase in the exchange of culture and ideas between people who previously had little or no contact with each other. The railroads even affected the way Americans kept time. Before 1883, the time kept within each region of the country varied from one community to another. The leaders of the railroads agreed that four time zones were necessary to keep the trains running safely and smoothly. This system was eventually adopted by the United States government and is, of course, still in effect today. The people who built and kept the railroad running were responsible for fundamental changes in the American way of life.