10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America

1. It made the Western U.S. more important.

The transcontinental railroad helped transform California from isolation to a major economic and political force.

2. It made commerce possible on a vast scale.

The transcontinental railroad carried western food crops and raw materials to East Coast markets and manufactured goods from East Coast cities to the West Coast. The railroad also contributed to international trade.

The United States became the single largest market and the most powerful economy in the world.

3. It made travel more affordable.

Once the railroad was built, the cost of a coast-to-coast trip dropped to 15% of a comparable trip before the railroad. Americans could visit distant locales that were previously out of reach.

4. It changed where Americans lived.

Temporary communities that had provided living quarters for construction workers building the railroad lines evolved into towns that provided rail terminals and repair facilities. About 7,000 towns grew around train depots. Immigrants could also travel farther west to settle.

5. It altered Americans’ concept of reality.

The transcontinental railroad changed the way that people viewed distances, as places seemed closer together. The need for fixed railroad schedules pushed the United States to adopt standard time zones in 1883.

6. It helped create the Victorian version of Amazon.

The transcontinental railroad made it possible to sell products without a physical storefront. Several years after the transcontinental railroad’s completion, Aaron Montgomery Ward introduced the first mail-order catalog business.

7. It took a heavy toll on the environment.

Thousands of trees were cut down to supply the wood for railroad ties and support beams for tunnels and bridges. New towns and cities along the tracks disrupted natural wild areas. The railroads brought many hunters westward in pursuit of buffalo. The bison slaughter weakened Native Americans.

8. It increased racial conflicts.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad led to heightened racial tensions in California. Many Chinese workers returned to California in search of jobs. White workers from the East Coast and Europe came westward where they met the immigrant laborers.

The Chinese immigrants were often blamed for the economic uncertainties of the 1870s. Growing prejudice and fear of the Chinese led Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which blocked Chinese laborers from entering the United States.

9. It pioneered government-financed capitalism.

The Central Pacific’s owners found a way to use government funds to finance their business. They used a combination of land grants, government loans, and government guaranteed bonds. When the loans came due, they refused to pay. The government had to sue to recover its money. Other entrepreneurs and industries also learned to exploit government help to build their businesses.

10. It instilled national confidence.

The transcontinental railroad became a symbol of America’s growing industrial power. It gave them a sense of confidence to try even more ambitious quests.

Source: 10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America
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