{Patreon Special} TOEFL iBT Reading | Railroads in 19th Century America

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[1] Life in America – and the nation itself – looked very different at the start and close of the 19th century. In 1800, 93% of the people in the United States lived in small towns or on farms, and two-thirds of those people lived within 50 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. They had no concept of fixed time: towns set their clocks based on the rising of the sun, so when it was midnight in New York, it was 11:55 in Philadelphia. Travel between these two major cities took two days by horse and carriage, prohibitively slow for most people, who had little reason to travel in any case. Their concerns were decidedly local, not national. The country didn’t even have a national anthem until 1812. Of course, all of this changed quite quickly, with rapid industrialization, westward expansion, and political unification, processes that are difficult to imagine without one accompanying development: the expansion of railroads.

[2] The industrial revolution – and “big” commerce in general – was fuelled (at least politically) by the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812 with England. At stake was control over trade, and when the Americans decided to follow an approach of self-reliance, leaders (political and business) realized that American manufacturing would have to grow, and it did, along with trade in general within the United States. But the movement of goods along the coast and from manufacturing centers farther inland required new means of transport. Canals and highways simply couldn’t accommodate all that was being moved. And so thousands of miles of railroad track were laid throughout the East and Midwest.

[3] Moving goods by rail conferred several advantages, particularly financial. Railroads could be operated throughout the year, unlike shipping on water routes, many of which were subject to freezing in winter. Trains could also move significantly more goods at one time. What these two advantages meant was that shippers and commercial enterprises could carry smaller inventories and pay less for winter storage. They also saved on insurance costs and suffered fewer losses due to accidents and mishaps.

[4] By 1850, over 9,000 miles of track had been built, primarily in the North and Midwest, where every major city was linked by 1860. And in the heartland of American agriculture at this time, in the Corn Belt from Ohio to Iowa, fully 80% of the farms were no more than 5 miles from a railway. Of course, 1860 marked the beginning of an immensely important political struggle – the American Civil War – which would have looked much different without the railways. Both the North and the South used trains to move both men and equipment over great distances. In the end, the North’s more fully developed rail system served as an enormous advantage, and without it, things may have ended much differently.

[5] Before the war ended, the federal government passed a piece of legislation that was to launch the next wave of railway construction: the 1862 Pacific Railway Act. This act authorized the construction of a transcontinental railroad that would link east and west. The settlement of the American West would not have been possible without the railways, and the railways wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of the federal government.

[6] Between 1855 (before the Pacific Railway Act, in fact) and 1871, the government operated a system of land grants. They effectively gave a total of 129 million acres of land to new railways, land which the companies could sell or pledge as they saw fit to finance the construction of the transcontinental lines. Another 51 million acres was supplied by the separate states, and both state and federal governments provided a variety of subsidies to encourage construction. As a result, the first transcontinental line was finished in 1869, and between 1871 and 1900, with the help of the government, 170,000 miles of new track was laid throughout the country. And the western half of the continent became populated by hardworking farmers, many of whom were deeply indebted to the banks that financed their purchase of land from the railways.

[7] Thus, the America of the year 1800 was long gone. Industrialization, urbanization, and westward migration had changed the distribution of peoples on the continent. Economically, agriculture was now rivaled by industry and commerce. And the railroad companies that developed hand in hand with society and the economy had so much power that they could even dictate how people set their clocks, as “railroad time” trumped “natural time” and “local time.” By 1900, when it was 12:00 in New York, it was also 12:00 in Philadelphia.


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