Saturday, May 10, 2008

Transcontinental Railroad

One of the defining characteristics of America is the way technology has defined it practically since the beginning. In a new world with new challenges, new solutions were welcome and there was little social inertia to retard adoption of new technology; the size of the country meant that large-scale solutions were both needed and decisive in affecting later developments. One of the largest technological solutions was the transcontinental railroad. After the California gold rush created a country divided by vast distances of rugged, empty land, railroads were built to allow people and goods to travel quickly from coast to coast; the first line, across the middle of the country, was completed on May 10, 1869. The railroads helped Americans fill in and settle their continent; they made it easy for the government to quell Indian threats and control the territories. Not surprisingly, the government encouraged the railroads to build, by granting them tax concessions and grants, the most obvious of which are the land grants.

The affects of the railroad were most obvious in the empty interior west. To people this vast area, the government made land grants to help railroads finance their tracks and get the land into private hands as quickly as possible. Land was granted in alternate square miles within 10-20 miles (sometimes as much as 50 miles, especially in difficult terrain) on either side of the tracks; the checkerboard pattern was intended to guarantee that railroad access would increase the value of the lands retained by the government. Land grant maps were frequently used by land speculators to advertise railroad lands for sale to the public; the hyperbole involved such claims as “rain follows the plow” and led many unsuspecting farmers to try their hand at farming the arid prairie. Not content with the local market, most western railroads established profitable land departments and bureaus of immigration with offices in Europe, to sell land and promote foreign settlement in the western United States; many immigrants, eager to leave unrest and famine at home, were enticed with free homes or credit on the land purchase. But the temperate climate and large crops they had been told to expect seldom materialized; instead, they found hot summers and drought, bitterly cold winters and blizzards, loneliness, hailstorms, and grasshoppers that devoured the crops. Within a generation, most of the erstwhile farmers had left the driest areas (like eastern Montana), looking for someplace more dependable to farm. But the effects of the grants - the checkerboard pattern of land ownership, the "busted" homestead, and communities descended from land-grant immigrants - are still visible around the west.

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