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[Detail] Where gold was firs [sic] discovered [between 1890 and 1910].

[Detail] Where gold was firs [sic] discovered [between 1890 and 1910].

The Railroad

The first westward-bound railroad in the United States was built between Baltimore and the Ohio River in Virginia in 1827. It was powered by a large sail, and by horses walking on a treadmill. By 1829, these early power sources had been replaced by the steam engine. Improvements to the locomotive continued throughout the century, making it an ever more popular method of transportation, capable of hauling more weight at faster speeds.

As railway lines extended west, towns grew up along them, while existing towns vied for the privilege of being included on new routes. The summary information for a photograph of a train station in Las Vegas, New Mexico remarks that the arrival of the railroad in 1879 "dramatically transformed the character of the town, reportedly bringing the likes of Doc Holliday, Jesse James and Hoodoo Brown to the area." Search on Jesse James, derail, railroad station, and train depot for other images that illustrate the impact of the railroad in western towns.

  • Why do you think people were anxious for railroads to be routed through their towns?
  • What kinds of reactions do you think people might have had upon seeing a train for the first time?
  • What were the pros and cons of the coming of the railroad? How did it affect daily life?
  • What kinds of people and events are documented in photographs of train stations? What does the architecture of these stations suggest about their significance?
  • What symbolic significance might railroad depots have had in a specific town, or in the West in general?


In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act, authorizing two companies to construct the first transcontinental railroad, known as the Central Pacific Railroad. Paid per mile of completed track, the Central Pacific Railroad Company in California and the Union Pacific Railroad Company in Iowa raced eastward and westward from their respective starting points to meet at an unspecified location.

  • What was the significance of building a transcontinental railroad?
  • Do you think that the railroad might have had a different significance in the western and eastern parts of the U.S.? Why or why not?

From 1863 to 1869, 4000 Central Pacific Railroad laborers, 80% of whom were Chinese Americans, laid tracks from Sacramento, California to Promontory Summit, Utah, where they met up with the Union Pacific crews. They blasted tunnels and chipped away at granite, hanging in baskets suspended on ropes in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Search on railroad, railroad crew, railroad workers, and railroad construction for photographs of western railroads and the men who built them.

  • What were the challenges of building western railroads?
  • Who did railroad construction work? What tasks were involved in this work?
  • What kinds of machines and tools were used in railroad construction?
  • What do you think it would have been like to work on the railroad? What were working conditions like? What was a railroad construction worker's life like?

The founders of the Central Pacific Railroad Company were four Sacramento businessmen who had come west with the gold rush. Known as the “Big Four,” they were revered and despised for the money and power that the railroad brought them. Search on railroad and railroad company to learn more about railroad companies.

  • What were railroad companies like? What might it have been like to work for one of them? Do you think that these employees were the same people who physically built the railroads?
  • How do you think the railroad business compared to other western enterprises, such as mining and agriculture?
  • How was the railroad business related to such enterprises?
  • What kind of image did railroad companies try to project? How?
  • How did railroad companies market their services?
  • Why do you think that men like the “Big Four” became so rich and powerful?

The railroad became a powerful symbol in many works of American literature, such as Frank Norris’ novel The Octopus. Given the history of the railroad, what would you expect it to have symbolized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?