Railroads - The Two Nations
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The key to the development of the American economy had become the railroad. Where scarcely a mile of track had existed in 1830, more than 30,000 miles crisscrossed the nation in 1860. To a considerable extent this leap in construction had resulted from the desire of various cities to secure to themselves the trade of the surrounding countryside. The unfortunate result was a variety of railroad gauges, ranging from the 4 feet 81/2 inches that prevailed in New England to the 6 feet employed by the Erie Railroad. In the South a 5 foot gauge prevailed. In many instances the railroads proved mere extensions of already existing waterways. As farmers preferred the slower but cheaper water transportation to the high rates of rail transportation, trains were used most frequently to send goods to a port where they could be reloaded on barges. Even if a manufacturer or farmer had wished to use rail transportation only, he faced the difficulty and expense of frequent unloadings and reloadings as one line ended and another began.
The Trials of Railroad Travel. Railroad travel frequently presented as many problems as railroad shipping. Nor was travel exactly a pleasure. Fanny Kemble recalled her experiences while on a theater tour in America.
The windows . . . form the walls on each side of the carriage, which looks like a long greenhouse upon wheels; the seats, which each contain two persons (a pretty tight fit, too), are placed down the whole length of the vehicle, one behind the other, leaving a species of aisle in the middle for the uneasy . .. to fidget up and down, for the tobacco-chewers to spit in, and for a whole tribe of itinerant fruit and cake sellers to rush through, distributing their wares at every place where the train stops.
Service was slow, often agonizingly so, and schedules, when they existed, were not observed. Since much of the system was single track, one train had to pull onto sidings for another to pass in the opposite direction. Any disruption of the schedule meant long waits while the trainmen determined whether it was safe to proceed. In winter the cars were frigid; in summer, torrid. Under the best of circumstances rail travel was a trial, and only by comparing it to stagecoach could one readily conclude that it was in fact an improvement over earlier conditions.
The Growth of Railroads. During the 1850s the investment in railroads increased from $300,000,000 to $1,150,000,000. The extraordinary dynamism of the American economy could be seen in the fact that the United States had almost half the world's rail mileage. Although the South had only a third of the nation's trackage, it had witnessed a spectacular rail growth, with its mileage increasing fourfold between 1850 and 1860. Only the Northwest, with an eightfold increase, exceeded Dixie's expansion. The extension of trackage in the South and West coincided with the establishment of trunk lines in the Northeast. By 1861 the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada connected Portland, Maine, with Detroit, Michigan, by way of Toronto and Montreal. Four trunk lines connected the Ohio River and Lake Erie with the eastern coast. The New York Central Railroad, under the guidance of Erastus Corning and Dean Richmond, linked Albany and Buffalo. To the south, the Erie, Pennsylvania, and Baltimore and Ohio provided passenger service across the Alleghenies; the trip took sixteen hours as compared to the week once needed to make the same journey by stagecoach.
Western Railroads. As railroads penetrated into the hinterland, Western towns boomed. Chicago, which had been a mere village in 1820, was a flourishing city of more than 100,000 by 1860. No less than eleven railroads entered the city. Built by funds provided by a congressional land grant, the Illinois Central ran the length of Illinois, offering, by 1856, seven hundred miles of continuous trackage. A sister railroad, the Mobile & Ohio, connected the South with the Chicago rail center. On the eve of Civil War a continuous road of more than one thousand miles paralleled the Mississippi River. By the late 1850s the major trunk lines from the East were energetically seeking access to Western terminals such as Chicago and St. Louis. Consolidation and standardization had become the goals of railroad management.
Economic Ties between East and West. The railroads substantially reoriented freight movement. Increasingly, bulk produce was transported eastward by rail to the Great Lakes ports, through the lake system to the Erie Canal, and then through it to the eastern seaboard, rather than southwest along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans and thence by sea to the East. The railroad reoriented sectional alignments from West and South to West and East. The movement of wheat into Chicago increased ninefold between 1852 and 1856, while that of corn quadrupled in the same period. Cotton from the Upper South moved toward Savannah and Charleston rather than New Orleans. Water passenger service suffered a precipitous decline as rail transportation steadily improved. By 1860 the reduction of travel time between St. Louis and Boston to forty-eight hours, for instance, had dealt a death blow to the inordinately long trips by water and stagecoach. The railroad had revolutionized transportation by 1860.
The Transcontinental Railroads. American horizons had been expanded by the iron rails that now bound together the nation. Even before the Mexican War, plans for spanning the continent with a railroad had been considered with interest by both Congress and business. Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Memphis, New Orleans, and Vicksburg all labored to obtain the eastern terminus of the proposed western route. In March 1853 Congress appropriated $150,000 with which to chart surveys for four alternate routes. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis persuaded Franklin Pierce to request the purchase of the Gadsden territory (included in present-day Arizona and New Mexico) in 1853 in order to improve chances for the selection of the southern route. Stephen Douglas pressed for the organization of the Kansas-Nebraska territories in order to improve the chances of the central route. Private entrepreneurs like former Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker urged the development of a route that would cross Texas and then push on to California. Efforts to develop one or the other of these routes, however, ran afoul of conflicting sectional ambitions. Eventually all four transcontinental routes were constructed, but in the final years before the Civil War Congress failed to authorize any construction, since each section viewed the choice of the route as an index of its relative power. Once war came, the newly formed Republican Party redeemed a platform pledge and authorized construction of the central route. On July 1, 1862, in the midst of a rapidly expanding conflict, Abraham Lincoln signed the first Pacific Railway Bill. An excellent index of the North's power was its ability to prosecute a vast war effort while preparing to build a railroad to span a continent.