Railroad History Exhibit
The railroad changed everything
Whitney, an American merchant who travelled abroad in the mid-1800s, experienced first-hand the ease of commerce that railway systems provided. The journey west ~ 2,400 miles and 4-8 months ~ was reduced to a mere week or two following the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The nation was connected on a level it had never been before and the impact was felt immediately.
In 1869, the Union Pacific Railroad (UP) and the Central Pacific Railroad (CP) met at Promontory, Utah. The Nation’s first transcontinental railroad was complete. The UP had built east to west, relying heavily on Irish immigrant labor. The CP had built west from Sacramento, CA, through the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The CP had relied heavily on Chinese immigrant labor. Both the UP and CP experienced challenges, including maintaining both supply levels (building materials) and adequate staffing. The endeavor was supported and partially subsidized (land grants + money) by the government, which saw the advantage of swift transcontinental commerce.
Josephson, The Robber Barons
The first northern transcontinental, the Northern Pacific (NP), was completed in 1883. Its western terminus was Tacoma, WA. Other railroads and connections followed later. The Great Northern Railway (1893) and the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Puget Sound Railway (1909) also completed transcontinentals. Transcontinental connections were established by Canadian Pacific (1885), Canadian Northern (1915), and Union Pacific (1898).
Much like the Central and Union Pacifics, the NP was granted large amounts of land by the U.S. Government in return for completing the first northern transcontinental. The NP received around 44,000,000 acres of land ~ most of it granted in a “checkerboard” pattern (see map below). Railways that received land grants sold land to bankroll the railroad. Most railroads had a real estate division as well as a construction division ~ one of which would handle land sales. Selling the land along its route was an important part of construction and sustainability because building railroads was expensive!
Arrival of railroads in the Northwest
Instead of a remote outpost that took months of travel to get to, the railroad made the region accessible. The northwest saw an influx of settlement in both cities and rural areas. The location of railroads and the frequency of train service influenced the spread of the new population.
Railroads fueled settlement
Railroads facilitated western settlement. Land to sell and the desire to generate more traffic ~ freight and passenger ~ were compelling reasons for railroads to actively promote settlement. It was big business for the railroads, and marketing efforts stretched across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. It was by design that much of the settlement lands were land grants the United States gave the railroad companies as incentives to build the railroads. The United States wanted the west settled as quickly as possible to establish a valid claim to the territory.
Railroad companies often had real estate divisions responsible for selling the land gained through incentive programs. Real estate sales were an important way of funding continued track construction, especially on large tanscontinentals. Marketing was a vital part of sales.
NP Ry advertisement circa 1897. Image courtesy
Washington State Historical Society 2003.148.1
Industry fueled by railroads
Tourism and railroads
July 4, 1889, the first train excursion to Snoqualmie Falls brought members of the ME Church Society and their friends. Roundtrip fare was $2 from either Seattle or Snohomish. The train left Snohomish at 8 am and Seattle at 8:45 am. Passengers spent the day at the Falls and the return train departed at 6 pm. Lots of local people turned out for a large celebration and food was shared by all.
The exhibit was made possible by a grant from:
Kurt Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railway Comes to Seattle, 1853 - 1911, 1999
George H. Douglas, All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life, 1996
Matthew Josephson, The Robber Barons, 1934
Ray Spangenburg and Diane K. Moser, The Story of America’s Railroads, 1991
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