Railroads and Conflict in the West

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What was the significance of the Transcontinental Railroad?

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The Transcontinental Railroad, completed in 1869, had dramatic economic, cultural, and political significance to the development of the United States. The advantages for business are almost obvious. The railroad's ability to connect both coasts with a relatively quick form of transportation opened markets for goods that did not exist earlier. Products that were manufactured in the industrial cities of the east could be delivered to the west coast in under two weeks. The west coast reciprocated by sending finished products from Asia and the west coast to eastern markets. The movement of raw materials in every direction also accelerated the industrial boom that was already happening after the Civil War.

The railroad also had a dramatic cultural impact on the United States. By making the continent seem smaller, the United States became unified culturally. Ideas and discourse were now being shared between the coasts. While regional variations would continue to exist throughout the United States, the completion of the railroad contributed to a shared vision and cultural identity.

Not every group in the United States would share in the benefits of this new transportation network. The decline of Native American culture and identity was accelerated by the construction and completion of the railroad. Within a generation, Native Americans would be relegated to reservations. The Chinese, who were instrumental in building the railroad, were now faced with racism and degradation as they headed to the West coast in pursuit of employment. The racial tensions that arose between whites and Chinese led to the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. These examples point to a trend that only certain groups of American share in the benefits of progress.

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The Transcontinental railroad played a major role in connecting the East and Western coasts of the United States. Spanish settlements had been established in the Western coast, currently the states of Washington, Oregon and California but they were separated by vast lands from the Eastern coast. There were very few routes that were either treacherous or expensive to access the far flung regions before establishment of the railroad.

The journey from the Eastern coast to the Western coast through land would take several months to accomplish. There were also risks of attacks and illness along the way which attributed to many deaths along that route. The other option would be to cover the distance by sea. This method still required several months and was expensive although less risky. The coming of the transcontinental railroad saw most of these issues sorted out and offered easy access for settlers and relatives to access or visit their families from coast to coast.

The transcontinental railroad was also necessary to ensure that the states along the Western coast remained loyal to the Union by providing easy access to the region.

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The Transcontinental Railroad was a key factor in the industrial development of the United States. Before the Railroad's completion, rail lines had limited reach, and supplies could only be transported through laborious animal hauling. Because of this, the standard of living and wealth throughout much of the country was lower than in the industrialized, developed areas; food, medicine, and education were all affected by transport limitations. The Transcontinental Railroad did not permanantly solve all these problems, but it did improve transportation and living standards significantly. Cargo could be transported in larger bulk than ever before; imports and exports could be scheduled, raising the wealth of outlying areas, and of course the Railroad itself provided many jobs. It also shortened travel times between far destinations, making business trips easier and more productive, and making vacation trips possible. One of the biggest side effects of the railroad was to improve communications; as the rail was being laid, telegraph poles and wires were put up alongside, taking advantage of the newly-cleared land. This allowed far better communications across the nation than ever before.

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Why was the Transcontinental Railroad so important?

Before the Transcontinental Railroad was built, transportation was slow, arduous, and dangerous. Relying mostly on horses and other draft animals, carts or buggies, and your own two feet, travelling across the US could take months and put you at risk for robbery, losing your way, the loss or death of your draft animal (and then no way to move your goods), and many many more factors that made the trek very difficult and potentially life-threatening. Not only was the transportation of goods and people slow and difficult, but so was the transportation of news and correspondence. To think of it in a more modern sense, if a disaster (think Hurricane Katrina or state-wide fires) were to happen, those forces that could send aid would take days, weeks, or even months to get the news and then take just as long to send aid.

The Transcontinental Railroad changed all this by connecting the United States "from sea to shining sea" and providing a foundation for the jump start of the Industrial Revolution within the United States. More and heavier goods could be transported faster and further, people could spread more widely across the continental United States, and news and information could be more timely and accurate. 

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