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How Railroad Transformed Transportation in America? Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 22nd, 2021


Railway transport development in America can be understood better if we first and foremost look at the genesis of American transportation in general. Those who built the first railways in America were faced with a lot of problems like political differences, social misunderstanding as well as topographical. Although they were confronted by these problems, they were still determined, and at last, they made it. This achievement marks the most inspiring achievement in the history of America.

The development of railroads has brought a great difference in the transport system of America.1 In the early nineteenth century, the largest number of residents of what is now the United States of America was principally concentrated in the region lying next to the Atlantic coastline. The west was sparsely populated and the pioneers started venturing into the west though faced with a lot of challenges. Many of them died along the way due to diseases and massacres. The latest colonists went after the pioneers down into the great river valleys ahead of Allegheny Mountains. This innovative region was largely subjugated by Ohio, Missouri, and the Mississippi rivers as well as their streams.

The pioneers made use of these interior shipping canals presented by nature. During this period, that is when steamboats were invented in 1783. They also started building canals though without the motorized assistance which are readily accessible these days. Later, several thousands of miles of canals were built which became the main means of transport, including linking New York to New Orleans. Some canals were built to combine both canals and railways since they realized that the canals were best suited for railway transportation.

Between 1800 and 1840 several railways were contracted and constructed including the Delaware and Hudson channel as well as Railroad Company; others included the Paterson and Hudson line which was finished in 1834 and the Boston and Providence Railroad opened in 1835.

Having these and other improvements, there came a need for appropriate locomotives. The first locomotive in America which was driven by steam upon a track came from Stevens John who built a multi-tubular boiler in his homestead; however, it was not fitting for money-making purposes. Moreover, a locomotive brought from England in 1931 by the name ‘John Bull’ tends to be the earliest engine to run on the Pennsylvania Railroad; thus making the basis of the present railway carriage in the US.2

This paper will discuss how the railway transformed transport in American when it was first constructed. In addition, the paper will identify the problems encountered in the construction of the railway, the benefits of its construction, and the effects, both positive and negative, of the railway.

Problems Encountered In Transport before Construction of Railways

Most of the American land was covered with rough terrains as well as huge forests. This made it very difficult to transport goods from one place to another. With the improvement of technology and industrialization, some companies had come up, such as coal mining, agricultural-based companies, and timber companies. These companies faced a lot of problems in transporting raw materials from sources to their destination. They used manpower which was not efficient for large production.

Most of them would fall sick and die on the way. The only better means of transport that was available was the use of animal-driven carts. However, these carts could not pass through rough terrain or in thick forests. This was a great hindrance to the development of the companies as well as the development of technology. For long journeys, these people had to clear forests and level rough terrains to make ways. This delayed the goods being transported. Furthermore, these people were confronted by wild animals as well as a massacre.3

Bad weather was another factor that affected the transportation of that time. Due to thick forests, there was a heavy downpour that disrupted transportation at that time. Perishable goods that were being produced like onions, which had been introduced by British colonies, would get worse while still being transported. This was a big blow to the economy at that time. Other than those people who lived on shorelines who would access boats for transportation, the rest in the interior land would face a lot of problems. The few canals that had been developed could not serve everybody. Transportation in America was very poor before the construction of railways.4

Benefits of Railway Construction in America

Environmental problems

The St, Paul & Pacific Railroad corporation which was later as called the Great Northern Railway corporation focused on the environmental possibilities of the hinterland. This was to shape western development most efficiently. During the winter season, there was a lot of ice that fell and covered most of the land. This made transportation very difficult. With the introduction of the railway as a means of transportation, they were able to overcome this challenge to some extent.

This is because railways were constructed in a way that trains could not derail. Some places which were covered by ice became good fertile land for agriculture after the development of rail. This led to the habitation of these lands and people started practicing farming in those valleys. A good example is the valley floor of the Red River, where there was a post-ice-lake. When this lake drained, it left two smaller lakes, Manitoba and Winnipeg. The land that was left after the draining of this lake became a good farming area. This brought about economic development.5

Change of traffic direction

From the second decade of the nineteenth century, there was an increase in the river traffic from the five states of the old Northwest down to New Orleans. There was a monopoly of western transportation by the steamboats in the Mississippi – Ohio basin. Crops from the western farms were moved southwards to New Orleans and the Gulf, while eastern finished goods were moved up the Mississippi to western and northern markets.

By 1850, there were more than six hundred steamboats of 135,000 total tons that were operating on the western rivers. Ten years down the line, the number of western steamboats had increased by two hundred and 196,000 tons. During the same time, western rail mileage had grown eight times with most of the running in an east-west direction. Rail routes, though higher in cost per mile, were often shorter and more direct than river routes.

Those who preferred steamboats as means of transport by the 1850s were found to prefer railways by the 1870s. This is because there was the development of rail routes that were shorter as compared to the river routes. Between 1852 and 1856, the amount of wheat that arrived in Chicago increased nine times, while there was a four-time increase in the amount of corn transported. This is because they used railroads as means of transport. Therefore railroads improved the traffic as well as providing another option, thus reducing the problems that came as a result of monopoly from steamboats.6

Area served

There was a great hindrance to transportation in the interior lands since they could not access water transportation. The ships could only operate along the shorelines. As a result, so many people could not be served. The canals that had been constricted could also not serve many people as they were few and there were no branches. When the railroads were constructed, other branch lines were built as well connecting various cities. This increased the area that was being served. Most people from the interior could access the services of railroads. Consequently, there was the development of the economy, mainly along the railroads. People would settle near these lines since they could access the means of transport.

Regular schedules of trafficking

There are certain seasons when the boats could not commute due to low levels of water. Ocean tides also affected greatly water transportation. The Pacific currents and Atlantic currents were also a hindrance to water transportation. When the railroads were established, there were regular schedules of the railroads. Furthermore, their year-round services were other merits of railroads over the steamboats. These schedules provided consistency even in production. This is because farmers, as well as manufacturers, were aware that there would be a means of transport. This boosted economic growth. It also brought innovations in the States. Other companies emerged. The loss of traffic by the steamboats in seasons of low water was maintained and overcome by the railroad.7

Speed of travel

By mid-century, the boats were drifting away from the business as the number of people using them declined while that using trains increased greatly. By 1860, the passengers using railroads could travel from Boston to St. Louis in two days (forty-eight hours) or from New York City to Charleston in sixty-two hours.

The passengers could buy tickets; check their baggage as well as noting the speed performance of their train in the recently available schedule books. With the development of new and better engines, these trains could move faster. Unlike the boats which relied on the direction of wind and currents, the train could move at a higher speed thus reducing the time taken in commuting. Since only one train could use a certain route at a time, this eliminated traffic jams, thus increasing the speed of travel.

Other transformations

The railroads offered linkages to other places like ports, borders as well as remote areas. This resulted in an exchange of goods and services. Countries could be able to export as well as import goods. This increased the rate of business thus there was growth in the economy of different States. Forward linkages from railroads contributed mainly to the process of export-led growth. This is mainly seen in Latin America. As a result of increased business, there was a transformation in the transport systems in America. Due to the exportation of goods, wastages were avoided and this brought about human interactions in America.

There were railroad transport policies that were developed that favored rail transportation in some areas like Mexico. Mexico is one of the areas that had poorly developed transport systems before the construction of railways. After the railroads were developed, there was a great transformation in Mexico such that up to date it remains as an example of what can happen when railroads are constructed in areas with low economic growth due to poor transport systems. There was growth in the export trade due to improved transport structure.

The invention of the train led to the invention of other automobiles that were being used to interlink most interior parts with railroads. These led to the transformation of American transportation.

Effects of Railroads Construction

There are positive effects as well as the negative effect that rose due to railroad development.

Positive effects

There was growth in the economy. Since the steamboats could not reach the interior people, the economy only grew along the shorelines. When the railroads were developed, there was growth in the economy in the interior places since people could access the railroads. There was also intermarriage that was mainly brought about by tourism and long-distance travel. Business trips also contributed to intermarriage. These intermarriages brought about the transfer of skills and also contributed towards attaining peace and unity. Tourism is one of the companies that emerged as a result of railroad development. People could travel for leisure as they toured their country.

There was also an increase in the security of travelers. Before the construction of the railroads, travelers would be killed along the way by wild animals. They also faced hostility from different communities. When the railroads were developed, people could travel safely without being exposed to these dangers.8

Railroads construction was the main key to industrialization. It provided good transportation of raw materials from the source to the industries as well as taking the finished goods to the consumers. Heavy goods like gold and iron were transported via railroads. There was also the development of education in many areas. People could travel easily to access better education. This led to the development of schools and especially those of higher learning.9

Negative effects

There were various demerits of the railroads in the American transport system. First, it resulted in the declination of the usage of boats. This led to retarded growth of the shorelines.

Also, forests were cleared to pave way for railway construction. This harmed the environment of the State. Some ice-lakes dried up due cutting down of trees. This also destroyed the natural beauty of the State as well as displacing the wild animals.

Since the terrain where the railroads would pass had to be somehow level if the railroad had to pass through where people lived, they had to be displaced. This would result in loss of property as well as land.10


There have been major changes in the railroad construction. There were inventions of electric trains that can move at very high speed. This has greatly transformed transportation in America. Most of these trains now travel in underground tunnels that are built with the most modern technology. It is one of the key factors that have led to industrialization in America. These electric trains have been introduced in the most crowded streets without creating inconveniences. This has greatly reduced traffic jams in these streets. They have also boosted the retail trade in these streets. For instance, there have been great improvements in retail trade in Boston.

In Philadelphia, they are constructed in the most crowded and exclusively dedicated to business. This has greatly reduced the nuisance of omnibuses by driving them off. This is because one coach can carry three times the number carried by the old omnibuses. Consequently, the numbers of the vehicle in the streets are greatly reduced and hence reducing the number of accidents reported. This has reduced in general the accidents-related deaths. There is no comparison between trains and busses. This is because the coaches of the train are wide, roomier, easily accessible, and more convenient. Thus the development of railroads has brought a great difference in the transport system of America.


Anonymous. The Street railways of America: a review of a pamphlet recently issued entitled Facts respecting street railways; also, the correspondence which appeared in the “Daily News” respecting the effect of street railways in increasing trade and improving property in the streets through which they run. London, P.S. King publishers. 1867. Web.

Haber, Stephen H. How Latin America fell behind: essays on the economic histories of Brazil and Mexico, 1800-1914. California: Stanford University Press. 1997. Web.

Hilton, George Woodman. American narrow gauge railroads. California: Stanford University Press. 1990. Web.

Mancall, Peter and Benjamin, Heber Johnson. Making of the American West: People and Perspectives. Califirnia: ABC-CLIO. 2007. Web.

Murphy, Jim. Across America on an Emigrant Train. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2003. Web.

Strom, Claire. Profiting from the plains: the Great Northern Railway and corporate development of the American West. WA: University of Washington Press. 2003. Web.

Stover, John F. The Routledge historical atlas of the American railroads. New York: Routledge. 1999. Web.


  1. Anon, The Street railways of America: a review of a pamphlet recently issued entitled Facts respecting street railways; also, the correspondence which appeared in the “Daily News” respecting the effect of street railways in increasing trade and improving property in the streets through which they run (London, P.S. King publishers, 1867), p. 4.
  2. George Woodman Hilton, American narrow gauge railroads (California: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 80.
  3. Jim Murphy, Across America on an Emigrant Train (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2003), p. 30
  4. Claire Strom, Profiting from the plains: the Great Northern Railway and corporate development of the American West (WA: University of Washington Press, 2003), p. 10. Web.
  5. Claire Strom, Ibid, p. 15.
  6. John F. Stover, The Routledge historical atlas of the American railroads (New York: Routledge, 1999), p. 22. Web.
  7. John F. Stover, Ibid.
  8. Jim Murphy, Ibid, p. 30.
  9. Claire Strom, Ibid, p. 20.
  10. Peter Mancall and Benjamin Heber Johnson, Making of the American West: People and Perspectives (Califirnia: ABC-CLIO, 2007), p. 64. Web.
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