Railroads and Conflict in the West

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How did trains and railroads transform life in America?

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Trains and railroads changed America by making goods cheaper. This helped grow the middle class. They led to the standardization of time and the birth of suburbs. Trains even increased the ability of people to take better advantage of leisure time.

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In a figurative sense, the railroad shrunk the size of the United States as it helped it to literally expand. A common statement about trains was that they "destroyed time and space." They sped up travel to rates unseen before and shortened months-long journeys into days.

During the industrial revolution, it was the railroad that impacted most Americans in the most tangible ways. Most middle and upper-class Americans did not work in factories. For them, trains were one of the few pieces of large industrial machinery that they experienced first hand. The railroad was the biggest sign to them that the world had entered a new industrialized era.

Railroads allowed raw materials to get to factories and manufactured goods to get to markets more quickly and cheaply than ever before. This gave rise to a consumerist culture and increased the standard of living of the growing middle class.

The railroad encompassed all aspects of this industrialized age. It meant that cities and rural areas alike needed new infrastructure in the form of tracks, bridges, coaling depots, and stations. Even time was changed. Before the railroad, the local time in each city and town was mostly arbitrary. A town clock might be set to noon when the sun was directly overhead. It did not matter so much if the time in a town was a few minutes off from its neighbors. With the need for the railroads to keep a strict schedule, standardized times were introduced and still exist today.

Suburbs owe their existence to the railroad. Before rail, people did not commute long distances to their jobs. If you worked in a city or a mill town, you had to live within easy walking distance of your place of work. Trains made it possible for people who worked in urban areas to live outside of the crush of the city. As a result, sprawling suburbs surround nearly every American city.

Railroads also helped improve leisure and recreation for the non-wealthy. Previously inaccessible vacation and holiday locations were now within the reach of most people. As the industrial revolution brought more wealth to the middle class, they took advantage of this and traveled further from home for leisure purposes.

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Railroads altered American society and economic life in fundamental ways. In short, they made transportation of goods and people much cheaper and quicker. They enabled the shipping of bulk goods like farm produce and coal from one end of the country to another. The railroads connected markets throughout the country, enabling the rise of a national consumer culture by the late nineteenth century based upon the consumption of common goods. It is important to remember that railroads rose roughly at the same time as the telegraph—indeed, telegraph lines were often strung along railroad right-of-way spaces—cutting the time that news, and market prices, needed to travel from one place to another. The invention of "railroad time," which eventually developed into modern-day time zones, is one example of how fundamental this change was.

Of course, the railroads also facilitated western expansion, connecting isolated western outposts to eastern metropolitan areas, and western farms to markets in places like Kansas City and Chicago. Along with railroads came mining and timber companies that depended on bulk transport, and the railroad companies often invested heavily in these operations, which frequently used lands given to railroads by the U.S. federal government. The demand for coal and especially steel created by railroad expansion was a major factor in industrial growth after the Civil War, as the country's economy became based on heavy industry. Of course, the railroads also became emblematic of the corruption and greed of the Gilded Age. "Robber barons" watered stocks, gave kickbacks, and fleeced farmers in particular in pursuit of profit. For this reason, they became a major target of the outrage of the Populist movement, and were among the first industries specifically regulated by the federal government.

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Trains and railroads dramatically changed life in America. They allowed for faster, safer travel all over the country. They were more reliable than wagon trains, as these trains could bog down in the country's terribly maintained roads. They could also move independently of livestock, which needed constant tending and forage. Railroads allowed people to send goods independently of rivers and canals. While the rails could be dangerous in terms of trains derailing or locomotives exploding, at least they did not experience flooding issues during the rainy season.

Rails were especially key in developing the West. The transcontinental railroad, when finished in 1869, gave Easterners the chance to go west for only a fraction of the price they would have paid twenty years previously. Railroads also gave Westerners the opportunity to buy Eastern goods as they could order them and have them shipped in efficiently via the rail system. Without the rail system, the nation would not be as cohesive.

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