The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad

The World Grew Smaller

People could travel from coast to coast in a week. The United States seemed smaller in terms of access.

A Competing Canal

In November, 1869, Egypt's Suez Canal linked Asia and India to Europe by a single waterway. The two regions could conduct trade without traveling through the United States.

Surging Interstate Trade

There was a significant transformation in trade within the United States. The railroad allowed business in the east to sell to markets on the west coast and from western ports to Asia. The railroad transported the vast resources from the middle and western continent for use in production in eastern industries. The railroad served as America's first technology corridor.

Improved Public Discourse

The railroad also contributed to the nation's public discourse and intellectual life. Americans were exposed to other parts of the country. Books written in San Francisco could be read in New York just one week after their publication. The railroad carried ideas across the nation, giving rise to a transcontinental culture. Manifest destiny had been achieved: the two coasts were united. As distances seemed to shrink, a unified American identity grew.

A Disaster for Native Americans

The transcontinental railroad was a symbol of the westward expansion that would force Indians onto reservations within decades. New treaties opened the last great Native American holding to settlement near the tracks. Buffalo herds were nearly depleted as the railroad turned bison into another resource for American industrial production. Millions of buffalo were killed and their hides shipped by railroad to eastern markets.

A Web of Rails

Additional railroad lines branched off the transcontinental railroad. By 1900 a number of routes ran parallel, reaching westward from Mississippi to the Pacific just like the pioneering road.

Source: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad
©1996–2022 WGBH Educational Foundation

Back to top