The railroad era was a period of rapid geographic and economic expansion in the United States facilitated by the growth of railroads between the 1840s and the early 1900s. During this period, a number of large and small railroads grew across the country to provide services to communities in far-flung areas. They enabled the rapid transportation of cargo like timber, wheat, and cattle, along with the movement of people. Railroads continued to be an important of method of transportation until they began to be replaced by trucking.
Development of steam engines was an important moment in human history, and the United States was an early adopter of railroad technology. In part, this was because of the nation’s sheer size; it could take weeks to transport goods across the country by pack animal, a method that was also highly inefficient, compared to days with a train. Numerous railroads sprang up to accommodate the growing demand, as did companies to support them including steel, agricultural, and mining firms.
During the railroad era, track was built across the United States, bringing opportunities for economic growth and development in its wake. In some small communities, the railroad was the largest employer, and it gave birth to a number of accompanying industries. With trains came the need for accommodations, restaurants, and entertainment, along with shipping warehouses, grain elevators, railway agents, and similar services. Timing was particularly apt for major historical events like the Gold Rush and the Civil War, both of which would have looked very different without trains.
Railway boomtowns were an especially common phenomenon in the West, where the population was historically low and communities were often very isolated. As the railroad era facilitated growth, westward expansion was easier and communities began producing crops, livestock, and other commodities. Such economic development wasn’t feasible when the only transportation methods for products were slow and expensive.
This period in US history was not without its hiccups. Debates over gauging and track size, for example, created problems like trains that couldn’t switch to different tracks as railroads argued over which gauge to use. Railroads were also prone to bankruptcy and acquisition as some tried to expand more quickly than they could actually grow, so fortunes could be ruined overnight as well as made. Monopolies were common and were targets of criticism by politicians, journalists, and other members of society with concerns about the stranglehold the railroads held over economic growth. Frank Noriss’ 1901 novel The Octopus explored these railroad era issues in fictional format as a form of social commentary.