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America Embraces the Railroads
The development of railroad technology, which had begun in England, advanced rapidly in the United States. Whereas European railroads connected existing cities separated by relatively short distances, American lines reaching to the West had to find their own way through vast tracts of land. The railroads made settlement of these lands by American and European immigrants possible on an unprecedented scale. Agricultural and mining interests, for example, suddenly had easy access to an expanded range of markets that increased the value of their products. In addition, government subsidies to the railroads provided lands that were used to attract even more settlers; in fact, the railroads actively recruited immigrants from Europe. The railroads strongly influenced where people would settle, laying down track and then establishing towns along the route.

Work trains carried equipment and supplies to the end of the track during railroad construction.
Work trains such as these would carry equipment and supplies to the end of the tracks.

Utah State Historical Society 

Railroads and Land Resources
Railroad construction required huge initial investments of capital that were beyond the means of the infant industry. To provide the railroads with a source of cash and to promote western expansion and settlement, the U.S. government offered grants of federal land. At first, these grants went only to the states in which the lines were built, but later they went directly to the railroads.

The grants consisted of a given number of alternating one-mile-square sections on each side of the right-of-way, which resulted in the familiar checkerboard land-ownership pattern of the West. The General Land Office, predecessor of today's Bureau of Land Management, oversaw the process. By the time Congress stopped issuing such grants in 1871, some 80 railroads had received title to more than 50 million hectares of federal land (about twice the size of Colorado), 90 percent of it west of the Mississippi. Money from these grants allowed the railroads to expand westward.

The railroads also had a defining influence over the development and use of the nation's natural resources. The harvesting of timber and the extraction of minerals, especially coal, was--and still is--heavily dependent on the railroads. Ranchers and farmers needed the railroad to transport their cattle and grain to markets. And the routes the early steam engines took were selected based in part on the availability of water, wood, coal, and other resources that might be needed along the way. Early railroad tracks themselves were laid on wooden ties that were hand hewn by the millions from logs cut from forests in the vicinity.

The Transcontinental Railroad
By the mid-1840s, America had become a two-ocean nation. As a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico and the earlier settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain, the United States now had control over California, Oregon, and much of the interior of the continent. Recognizing the need to connect the vast area, in 1853 the Congress charged Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, to conduct feasibility surveys for a transcontinental railroad. After years of debate on the best route, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act on July 1, 1862, and one of the greatest adventures in American history began.

Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad in California
Chinese workers laying track along the Central Pacific Railroad
Chinese workers on the Central Pacific Railroad in California. The Chinese, at first considered too small to do the back-breaking labor of laying track, made a great contribution toward completing the transcontinental railroad. Many workers were killed in blasting accidents or died from exposure during the harsh winters in the Sierra Nevada.

California State Railroad Museum

Two railroad companies, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, were authorized to construct a railroad and telegraph line that would span a continent. The Union Pacific was to build westward from the 100th meridian (near Omaha, Nebraska) across the Great Plains, and the Central Pacific was to build eastward from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada.

In addition to the land grants, the government promised funds to each of the railroads depending on how much track was laid, touching off a fierce competition between the two. Soon the silent lands that had been the province of nomadic Native Americans, fur traders, and explorers gave way to the bustle of surveyors, graders, trestle builders, tunnel blasters, and spikers. Thousands of workers, including Civil War veterans and immigrants, were enlisted to do the back-breaking work of laying track across the treeless deserts and through towering granite mountains. As the tracks from the Central Pacific and Union Pacific approached each other, the two railroads could not agree on a meeting point; as a result, they surveyed and graded a parallel roadbed 320 kilometers long. Finally, on May 10, 1869, a telegraph key clattered out a message from Promontory, Utah, where the two tracks met, indicating the line's completion.

During the next two decades, railroads experienced their greatest growth, adding 176,000 kilometers to the system and eventually constructing seven transcontinental rail routes. By the eve of the First World War, railroads had reached their peak in America, with over 400,000 kilometers of track.

From Steam to Maglev
Today, new technology has resulted in faster, more efficient trains that consume less energy than ever before. For almost 150 years, locomotives burned wood, coal, or oil to create steam. The steam was then injected into cylinders to create pressure to drive the pistons; the spent steam was exhausted upwards through the stack and also created a draft to bring oxygen into the firebox. Steam-powered locomotives required massive amounts of water and fuel -- either coal or wood -- consuming four times as much water as fuel.

As the railroads began searching for an alternative to the steam locomotive at the turn of the century, they turned to electrical power. Electric locomotives were clean (important because of new air pollution ordinances) and powerful. These trains could convert electrical energy from an outside power source directly into mechanical energy, resulting in smooth torque, almost instantaneous, unlimited power (important for climbing hills), and eliminating the need to carry fuel on board.

Railroad logging in Oregon around the turn of the century
This view of railroad logging in Oregon illustrates the melding of steam and railroad technologies in providing development of forest products in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Douglas County Museum Photograph

In Montana and Washington, cheap hydroelectric power made it possible for railroads such as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroad-- also known as the Milwaukee Road -- to electrify close to 950 kilometers of track by 1916. Eventually, however, the high start-up construction and maintenance costs made early long distance electric trains impractical.

In 1892, German engineer Rudolph Diesel patented a new type of engine that could be used to power a locomotive. Instead of relying on coal or wood to produce steam, the diesel engine relies on petroleum-based fuel ignited under compression. The vaporized fuel is injected into compressed, high-temperature air and ignited in a combustion chamber to drive pistons in the cylinders. Energy is then transmitted to generators that make electricity to power the motors that turn the wheels. Compared to steam locomotives, diesel-electric trains consume less fuel, produce less pollution, require less maintenance, and can stay in service longer each day. Several diesel locomotives linked together can be operated by a single engineer, unlike the steam engine, which requires at least two men to a unit. The first successful diesel locomotive was introduced in 1925 by the Central Railroad of New Jersey. Today, nearly all trains operating in the United States are powered by diesel engines.

One of the most exciting recent innovations in railroad technology is magnetic levitation, or Maglev, which relies on the principles of magnetism -- attraction and repulsion. This new technology, still under development, will result in trains that are faster, more efficient, more comfortable, and more environmentally sound. No longer will trains rumble heavily along steel rails; rather, they will float along a magnetic cushion without any direct contact with the ground.

Steam engine on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad in Colorado
A steam engine on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad in Colorado. Today, this area is part of the Gold Belt Loop, a back country byway on public land that allows visitors to drive on parts of the old railbeds.

Colorado Historical Society

From cumbersome coal-and-wood-powered steam engines to the emerging technologies of Maglev, railroads have become faster and more energy efficient. But at the same time, the world's demand for energy continues to grow. Just as railroad technology helped shape the development of the United States one hundred years ago, the development of new transportation technologies will influence the way we wrestle with environmental challenges in the future. Studying the evolution of railroad technology not only gives students a feel for how a vast landscape was settled and developed, but also illustrates the important relationship between technology, society, and our environment.



Cadastral Survey
Unlike surveys of the east based on such natural features as mountain ridges or rivers, surveys of the unsettled West marked boundaries neatly and systematically into townships composed of 36 1.6-km (one-mile)-square sections. This geometric survey work is known as "cadastral" surveying. Federal surveyors began this task more than 200 years ago, and today the Bureau of Land Management's cadastral surveyors continue to mark and resurvey public land boundaries throughout the United States.

Map of land grants to Union Pacific Railroad showing checkerboard land-ownership patternThis map of land grants to the Union Pacific Railroad shows the checkerboard land-ownership pattern characteristic of the midwestern and western states.

Union Pacific Museum Collection

Since the federal government granted every other section along the right-of-way to the railroads, a checkerboard land-ownership pattern emerged and still exists today in many areas of the Midwest and West. This intermingling of publicly and privately owned lands poses unique challenges to land managers. Because natural ecological systems do not follow this rigid grid, public land managers must work with neighboring land owners and together consider the impacts of land management decisions on the larger area. (For a detailed description of ecological considerations in public land management, see "Understanding Ecosystem Management" in the November/December 1994 issue of Science and Children).


A Modern Challenge: Surveying the Alaska Railroad
When Alaska became a U.S. Territory in 1912, there was a need to connect parts of the expansive area. In contrast to the private development of the railroads in the lower 48 states, the federal government took charge of developing the Alaska Railroad, which connects Seward, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Whittier. In 1985, Congress transferred control of this railroad to the State of Alaska. To complete the transfer, a comprehensive land survey was undertaken by the Bureau of Land Management's cadastral surveyors. Now nearing completion, the survey has covered 880 kilometers. Surveyors worked with railroad personnel to assure their safety and to coordinate their work with the trains' schedules. Because of weather conditions, surveyors could work on-site only five months of the year. It took survey crews almost seven years to complete the field work. Without the use of such technology as Doppler satellite receivers and inertial guidance systems, the job would have taken even longer.

Historic train relic near Nome, Alaska
This historic train relic can be found near Nome, Alaska. Railroads provided a critical transportation and communication link between Alaskans and the outside world.

Ed Bovy


Focus on Safety: Always Expect a Train
Almost every injury caused by trains could have been prevented, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). Most victims (in the past 10 years, 800 children killed, 2,500 seriously injured) ignore warning signs or signals or play illegally on trains or tracks. The FRA offers the following safety tips

  • Never walk or play on railroad tracks.
  • Do not play on or in railroad cars.
  • Stay out of railroad yards. They are dangerous places.
  • Stay off railroad bridges and out of railroad tunnels.
  • Always look both ways and listen before crossing railroad tracks at railroad crossings.
  • Never cross tracks when warning lights are blinking or safety gates are down.
  • Never try to race or play chicken with a train.
  • When riding your bike, obey all signs and signals at highway-railroad intersections.
  • Play it safe. Always expect a train.

In order to emphasize just how dangerous trains can be, have your class consider the braking distances of different types of trains.

  • A 150-car freight train traveling at 48 km/h (30 mph) takes 1.05 km (two-thirds of a mile) to stop.
  • A 150-car freight train traveling at 80 km/h (50 mph) takes 2.4 km (1.5 miles) to stop.
  • An eight-car passenger train traveling at 96 km/h (60 mph) takes 1.05 km (two-thirds of a mile) to stop.
  • An eight-car passenger train traveling at 126 km/h (79 mph) takes 1.8 km (1 and 1/8 miles) to stop.

Did You Know?

  • The average freight train hauls 1,515 metric tons of freight in about 70 cars.
  • The United States maintains the greatest amount of railroad track, approximately 315,200 kilometers. Russia has 166,500 kilometers of track, the second greatest number. There are about 1,216,000 kilometers of track worldwide.
  • On June 6, 1833, Andrew Jackson became the first President of the United States to ride a train. (It was on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.)
  • The first locomotive built for sale in America was the Best Friend of Charleston, constructed in 1830. It cost $4,000.
  • Standard Time was created in 1883 to keep train schedules. Previously, clock readings varied as much as 30 minutes between cities in the same state.
  • Sixty percent of the coal that produces the majority of the nation's electricity is shipped by rail. Two-thirds of all new car shipments are made by rail.
  • Fuel efficiency of trains has increased by more than half since 1980.
  • Nearly every 90 minutes, someone in the United States is hit by a train.

Locomotive and roundhouse outside Terrace, UtahA locomotive ("Gold Run") and roundhouse outside Terrace, Utah.

Utah State Historical Society

  • A four-unit diesel locomotive weighing 675 metric tons is supported on 78 meters of track composed of 10.4 metric tons of steel rail held in place by 270 kilograms of spikes resting on 2.8 metric tons of steel tie plates, resting on 15 metric tons of treated wood crossties, resting on 117 metric tons of crushed rock ballast.

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Last updated: 11-13-2009