How did railroads grow in the decades before the Civil War?

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Railroads grew slowly in the decades before the Civil War, as many people did not trust the new technology. Steam engines were often dangerous, resulting in explosions on both locomotives and steamship boilers and leaving scores dead and maimed. Canals were considered to be safer and more reliable. There was...

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Railroads grew slowly in the decades before the Civil War, as many people did not trust the new technology. Steam engines were often dangerous, resulting in explosions on both locomotives and steamship boilers and leaving scores dead and maimed. Canals were considered to be safer and more reliable. There was also a problem of finding reliable material for tracks, as steel would not be mass produced until after the Civil War.

In the period right before the war, however, many saw trains as the wave of the future. There were already plans to build a transcontinental railroad before the Civil War. Jefferson Davis, senator from Mississippi, even wanted a terminus in his home state. Railroads would eventually be concentrated in the North, due to the availability of cheap foreign labor, such as the Irish and Germans, and the availability of land. Southern aristocrats would not give up their slaves for rail construction or valuable cotton farms for a railroad right-of-way; this explains why the South had few railroads during the Civil War. This would ultimately prove to be the South's undoing during the war, as it could not adequately move material and men like the North was able to by 1865.

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Railroads grew somewhat slowly in the decades before the Civil War.  There was a great deal of enthusiasm for railroads, and companies sprang up all over the place, funded by private investors.  However, the technology (mainly for making iron and steel quickly and cheaply) was not yet in place to allow railroads to boom as quickly as they did after the war.  That is why US railroads grew from 3,000 miles of track to 30,000 miles between 1840 and 1860 but then exploded to 192,000 miles of track by 1900.

Railroads grew, then, because there was a great deal of demand for transportation.  However, technology limited their spread in the time before  the Civil War.

 

 

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