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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

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Activities: Context Activities

America Unbridled: The Iron Horse and Manifest Destiny

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Map of the Union Pacific Rail Road and Its Connections

[7363] Union Pacific Railroad, Map of the Union Pacific Rail Road and Its Connections (1868), courtesy of the University of Michigan and the Making of America Project.
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The development of the railroad system transformed American culture, physically binding the country together and enabling people to travel long distances in short periods of time and in relative comfort. The railroad broke traditional geographic barriers that had restricted trade, commodity flow, and immigration, thus speeding the process of American expansion and producing unprecedented economic opportunities. In their early stages of development at the beginning of the nineteenth century, railroads were constructed mainly to link urban, metropolitan areas in the East. But with the ascension of the concept of Manifest Destiny over the course of the nineteenth century, Americans' desire for a transcontinental railroad intensified. A moral justification for expansion, Manifest Destiny refers to the popular belief that American control of the land that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific was inevitable and divinely sanctioned. Because of this culturally arrogant conviction of the United States's "right" to western lands, American policy makers had few scruples about displacing Native Americans, Mexicans, and other groups who already inhabited the land from the Great Plains to California.

The transcontinental railroad seemed symbolic of America's destiny to stretch "from sea to shining sea," so public interest in and support for the railroads increased over the century. The nation's total mileage of track multiplied from 9,000 in 1850 to 30,000 in 1860. By 1870 there were 94,000 miles of railroad track in the United States, and by 1900 there were 199,000. While some of this construction filled out the urban eastern network, much of it went into the grand project of building the transcontinental lines that ran across the sparsely settled plains and through the rugged mountains and canyons of the West. Railways were also important to the development of National Parks. As Joshua Scott Johns points out in the online exhibit "All Aboard: The Role of the Railroads in Protecting, Promoting, and Selling Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks," "From the earliest days of discovery to the crucial National Park Act of 1916, the process of park development was shaped by needs of the railroads--from acquiring investors to selling mass-market tourism, they modified their advertising strategies to win the patronage of new passengers with the promise of fulfilling their expectations of the West in 'America's playgrounds.'"

Although the railroads were the first "big business" enterprise in the United States and created enormous profits for the tycoons that ran them, the transcontinental project was largely fueled by government grants. Issuing both federal land and cash grants, the government subsidized the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads' work of laying track from Omaha to Sacramento. The dubious financial practices of the men who ran the railroads--they controlled every aspect of the rail system from real estate to construction and thus found it easy to engage in profiteering--earned them the pejorative title "robber barons." Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton offers a searing critique of the robber barons' monopolistic business practices in her novel The Squatter and the Don. Featuring the four men who headed the California railroad monopoly (known as the "Big Four") as characters in her book, she indicts their immoral business manipulations and unfair control over the economic resources of the state. In the novel, the Big Four, in collusion with Congress, ensure the failure of a proposed rail line, interfere with the prosperity of San Diego, and create financial hardships for honest working people. As Ruiz de Burton so vividly demonstrates in her portrait of the fate of San Diego, exclusion from the rail line could spell doom for a town.

While the railroad could have an enormously stimulating effect on local economies, promoting growth through easy immigration and the efficient transport of commodities, it could also lead to the failure of certain economies and the destruction of certain ways of life. By expediting the immigration of European American settlers, the railroad hastened Native Americans' expulsion from much of their traditional western land. The railroad famously led to the demise of the culture of the cowboys, making long-distance cattle herding obsolete because livestock could be transported more efficiently by rail car. Nat Love's career as a cowboy came to an end with the growth of the rail system, a setback he responded to by simply taking a job as a porter on the railroad. The expansion of the railroad also enabled the destruction of natural resources: the ease with which lumber could be shipped led to the demise of the white pine in the Great Lakes region. While buffalo herds were already endangered by wasteful European American hunting practices long before the completion of the transcontinental railroads, the trains sealed their doom by allowing passengers to shoot defenseless animals from inside the cars. As the train approached a herd, passengers opened the windows, pointed their rifles, and fired at random. The animals they killed were usually left to rot where they fell.

Nor was the railroad without physical dangers for its human passengers and employees. In its early years, travel by rail was a somewhat risky enterprise, as fires and derailments were common. But the dangers of riding in a train could not begin to compare to the hazards of laying track and building the rail line. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific exploited inexpensive labor, hiring primarily African Americans and Irish and Chinese immigrants to do the difficult work of constructing the transcontinental line. The Chinese workers (referred to as "coolies") who manned the Central Pacific crews, in particular, faced extremely dangerous working conditions as they graded and hauled the road through the rugged Sierra mountains. Many Chinese men died in the process of laying the transcontinental railroad. While the completion of the transcontinental line in May of 1869 was a much-celebrated national event--a golden spike was installed where the railroads met at Promontory, Utah--it is important to remember that this industrial feat came at the high price of many human lives.

Railroad companies also relied on exploitative labor practices to provide service to passengers within the cars. The porter positions on the Pullman Palace Car Company, for instance, were occupied almost exclusively by African American men who were not eligible for better-paying jobs as engineers or mechanics. Judging from his autobiography, Nat Love apparently found satisfaction in his career as a Pullman Porter, but perhaps he did not feel comfortable recording any resentment or disappointment he might have felt. Eventually, labor dissatisfaction came to a head in the railroad industry. In 1893, railroad employees banded together to form the American Railway Union. A large-scale strike known as the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 crippled rail transit, and the Pullman employees went on strike in 1894. While none of these early attempts at labor organization resulted in significant reforms, they did lay the groundwork for later, more successful protests.

In the American imagination, railroads were symbols of optimism and democracy, creating economic opportunity and connecting the vast expanses of the country. And in important ways, the railroads really did function like this. People were able to travel through the country with new ease and speed and many Americans felt their country to be more unified as a result. In their development of efficient timetables, the railroads even created the Standard Time Zones that put citizens on the same schedules, a phenomenon that was originally known as "railroad time." Whatever its potential as an agent of democracy and unity, however, the railroad also enabled monopolies, natural destruction, and human exploitation.

  1. Comprehension: What is the concept of Manifest Destiny?

  2. Comprehension: What was the transcontinental railroad? How was it constructed? Why was it so important to nineteenth-century Americans?

  3. Comprehension: Read the anti-railroad broadside featured in the archive. This piece of propaganda was part of a campaign to curtail railroad expansion in the urban areas of the East. What are the writer's objections to the railroad? What kinds of dangers does the railroad pose to the community?

  4. Context: How does Walt Whitman describe the railroad in his poetry? Why might it have been an important symbol for him?

  5. Context: Consider why Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton featured the California railroad tycoons in her novel. Why did she use their real names? What risks did she take in doing so? What is the effect of the insertion of these "real people" into a piece of historical fiction?

  6. Context: What was Nat Love's position on the Pullman line? Why do you think he included photographs of his experience working for the railroad in his autobiography? What do the photographs tell you about the nature of his work? What kind of satisfaction did he find in his job?

  7. Exploration: Why do you think escaping slaves adopted the symbolic term "railroad" to describe their support system? What did the Underground Railroad have in common with a real railroad? Why might this symbol have appealed to abolitionists and runaways?

  8. Exploration: Rail travel is no longer the primary mode most Americans use for long-distance travel. What kinds of transportation have replaced the railroad? Do they occupy a similar position in the popular imagination? Can you think of any industrial or technological developments of the twentieth century that have created the same kind of national excitement that the transcontinental railroad did in the nineteenth century?

  9. Exploration: In "The Virgin and the Dynamo" (The Education of Henry Adams), Henry Adams claims that "his historical neck [was] broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new" when he viewed the dynamo and steam engines at the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900. What was so revolutionary about turn-of-the-century technology that it would have this impact on Adams? What place did the railroads take in this technological revolution?

[1768] Anonymous, Poster circulated in Philadelphia in 1839 to discourage the coming of the railroad (1839),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Pictures Branch.
This poster cites public safety, local commerce, and even the city's self-identity as potential casualties of a new railroad running through Philadelphia.

[2020] Anonymous, President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir at Yosemite National Park (1903),
courtesy of the National Park Service.
Concerns about preserving wilderness increased as the frontier disappeared. John Muir and President Roosevelt helped ensure the success of early conservation efforts. Railroads played a crucial role in establishing and maintaining national parks.

[3712] Anonymous, Chinese Man Carrying Buckets ("Utah") (c. 1890),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
Chinese laborers were an indispensable part of the effort to build the western segment of the transcontinental railroad. Bret Harte's "The Heathen Chinee" can be contrasted with Chinese immigrants' poems written on the walls of Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West Coast.

[7358] Anonymous, Joining the Tracks for the First Transcontinental Railroad, Promontory, Utah Territory, 1869,
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Still Pictures Branch.
The ceremonial completion of the transcontinental railroad was signaled by the driving of a golden spike inscribed with the words "May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world."

[7359] Fanny F. Palmer, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1868),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3757].
The railroad and telegraph divide civilization and wilderness in this 1868 lithograph. The tension between the crowded settlement and the open landscape hints at both the expansion of America and the abundance of unsettled land.

[7363] Union Pacific Railroad, Map of the Union Pacific Rail Road and Its Connections (1868),
courtesy of the University of Michigan and the Making of America project.
This map shows the route of the transcontinental railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific; it was completed in 1869 after just seven years of construction. Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad companies worked from Sacramento, California, and Omaha, Nebraska, respectively, to meet at the midpoint of Promontory, Utah.

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