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What Was the Impact of the Railroads?

Historians argue whether railroads determined the pace of economic development in nineteenth-century America. Some have tried to measure the impact of transportation innovations on American development and concluded that the contribution of railroads was not as crucial as some people thought. The fact remains that the railroads came, saw, and conquered nineteenth century America.

They were liberating—increasing mobility and speed across the continent—as well as confining: they held the power of economic life and death over many communities, often abusing that power. The railroads brought forth giant corporations, but usually accompanied by illegal financial practices and greed.

They provided employment for thousands of workers, but the conditions under which these laborers had to work and live made them revolt and informed the nation of the hardships of the working class.

The railroads were also to a great extent responsible for the settlement of the West, but simultaneously helped extinguish the Native American population. They linked the nation together with the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. They were born and raised on government money, yet became the first and most heavily regulated segment of the private sector.

The importance of solving the question whether or not the railroads were the prime stimulus for American economic development fades when focusing on the effect they had on society as a whole. One cannot help but wonder how different America would have looked and functioned had it not been for the railroads.


Source: What Was the Impact of the Railroads?
© 1994-2012 GMW - University of Groningen - Humanities Computing

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