5) Railroad Transportation
Panoramic maps depict many cities that lay along railroad routes. It is possible to better understand the importance of the railroad to a particular city by setting a panoramic map along side other historic materials concerning that city. For example, by drawing from the collections, Railroad Maps, 1828-1900 and Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910, as well as Panoramic Maps, 1847-1929, on can form a composite picture of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in the late 1860s and early 1870s.
This is another of the important points on the upper Mississippi River. It is one of the oldest settlements in the Northwest . . . beautifully located on a level prairie several miles in extent, about four miles above the mouth of the Wisconsin River. Prairie du Chien is the Western terminus of the . . . Prairie du Chien branch of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad, and is a shipping point of considerable importance, as much of the wheat of Minnesota and Iowa is brought here in barges and transferred to [rail]cars, and a large amount of the merchandise transshipped from the cars to steamers, for points on the upper Mississippi. . . . a large passenger trade is also done. The population is about 4000. The town contains six churches, several fine hotels, good schools. . . It is 71 miles from Dubuque, 292 miles from St. Paul, 194 miles (by rail) from Milwaukee.
- How does compiling these sources (dated 1869, 1870, and 1872) help you to understand the city of Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin?
- What are the similarities and differences between the way that each item depicts the railroad and its role in Prairie du Chien?
- What purposes do these items suggest that the railroad served in this town?
- What might have been the daily routine of a railroad conductor in the upper Midwest or that of a steamboat pilot on the upper Mississippi?
A contributing factor to the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1857 was the fact that railroads had overbuilt and too often defaulted on debts. In domino fashion, land schemes and development projects that depended on projected new rail routes failed as well. Although by 1868 the town of Portage, Wisconsin appears to have regained firm financial ground, it had suffered a setback in 1857 when plans to make it a terminus for a northern branch of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Rail Road failed because of the economic downturn. Other towns along the projected route, such as the site that railroad surveyor Andrew McFarland Davis, called the "brisk new town" of Chippewa Falls, also suffered when the panic prohibited follow-through on A Preliminary Railroad Survey in Wisconsin.
- How might the failure of railroads have affected the growth and ultimate identity of cities such as La Crosse and Chippewa Falls?
- What other forms of transportation existed in these cities? How might theses various modes of transportation have affected the growth and identity of these places?
Put together maps and other items pertaining to specific locations to develop an understanding of the importance of land and railroad development to the growth of the upper-Midwest region during the mid-nineteenth century. What materials might you draw upon to compose a multimedia portrait of, for example, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, Davenport, Iowa, or Bismarck, North Dakota? After you find a panoramic map with which you wish to work, search across the American Memory collections on the name of the city depicted in that map.