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An Expanding Empire

[picture of Professor Scharff]

Scharff: The United States Constitution tells us that our government is supposed to establish justice and to promote the general welfare. But how? At the end of the Civil War, as industrialism reshaped the American landscape, and as the gap between rich and poor grew wider and wider, there wasn't any such thing as a "welfare state," spending money to establish justice. What we had in those days instead was a "frontier state."

To foster social justice, and prosperity, and democracy, the United States government didn't spend money. Instead, it handed out what it had the most of; it spent land. Land had been the cornerstone of power in what Thomas Jefferson called "the Empire for Liberty."

And all across the expanding American empire, land made and broke people's fortunes, and had haunted their dreams. Between 1860 and 1900, the combination of money and machines and government power transformed more land more quickly than ever before. Somehow, much of the land the government sold and gave away ended up in the hands of a wealthy few.

In 1845, as he sat on the shores of Walden Pond, contemplating his country's future and his own labors and desires, Henry David Thoreau had written that eastward, he went only by force. But westward, he went free. Thousands of Americans and immigrants shared Thoreau's dream of finding freedom someplace west of where they were. But others had more grandiose plans.

Joining the East and West

A young politician named William Gilpin told a mass meeting in Independence, Missouri, in 1849 that the East should no longer hold the West in bondage. "Give us cheap land from the public domain," he shouted. "And build us a railroad to unite the two coasts, like ears on a human head."

It wasn't a very poetic image, especially coming from a man who had been educated in England. Gilpin knew that his audience loved bluster, and they didn't expect poetry. And he certainly didn't have to spout poetry to stir up excitement about the transcontinental railroad.

The federal government even bankrolled a huge survey that identified seven potential routes. The North and the South of course squabbled about where to put the railroad, until the South seceded. And at that point, Congress, which was composed entirely of Northerners, not surprisingly chose a route that linked the West to the East from San Francisco to Omaha, and onward to Chicago and to the East.

[picture of the Union Pacific logo]

The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 was the biggest federal subsidy to industry in the country's history. Congress chartered two corporations, the Central Pacific, which was to build eastward from California, and the Union Pacific, starting out in Omaha, Nebraska and heading west. Each corporation got a 400-foot right-of-way along the route (Congress said it would try to get rid of any Indian land titles that might get inconveniently in the way). The government also set up long-term, low-interest loans to the companies for construction costs; $16,000 for every mile of track laid on level ground, all the way up to $48,000 for every mile in the mountains.

[picture of rail tracks]

But most importantly, the United States offered the railroads free land. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific ultimately got twenty square miles of alternating sections of land for every mile of track they laid. And in time, country that had once rolled and risen according to natural processes and boundaries began to take on the look of a checkerboard. And that's a view familiar to anybody today who's ever flown in an airplane.

The profit potential was huge, but then again, so were the risks. These were the biggest engineering projects the country had ever undertaken. Big bucks meant big chances for corruption, and the corruption extended pretty far up. Businessmen like the Central Pacific's Collis Huntington said he wasn't necessarily happy having to bribe politicians; but then Huntington said, "If you have to pay money to have the right thing done, it is only just and fair to do it."

Cronies of President Grant (including the Vice President), along with railroad insiders, held stock in a company called the Credit Mobilier. It was a privately held construction company with a fancy name and a sneaky agenda. By charging enormous rates for the work it did for the Union Pacific railroad, the Credit Mobilier bled the capital out of the publicly traded Union Pacific, and it made a fortune for its own investors. But with all this wheeling and dealing, still somebody had to grade the road beds, and lay the tracks.

And this was horribly hard work, especially in the Sierra Nevada, where chipping through granite meant that a bad day's work might yield no more than three inches of progress. And it was dangerous, too. Across the Great Plains and on up onto the Continental Divide, Indians sometimes attacked construction parties. They tore up the rails and burned the telegraph poles that went alongside the tracks that they called "the iron snake."

Well, who better for such back breaking, terrifying railroad work than African Americans and immigrants? The Union Pacific hired mostly Irish and black workers, who were eager for the jobs, despite the horribly low wages. Labor was scarce in California, and the men who ran the Central Pacific didn't really know what they'd do, until somebody remembered that Chinese laborers had built the Great Wall.

[picture of Chinese railroad laborers]

Test projects using crews of 50 Chinese workers were such dazzling successes that the Central Pacific recruited some 10,000 Chinese men. They came to the United States hoping to work and save enough to return to China with a pile of money. But all too often, poverty or death got in the way of going home.

The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad

The railroads brought Reconstruction America, with all of its race and class and gender tensions, to new places, in new ways. "Hell on wheels" railroad towns like Ogallala, Nebraska and Laramie, Wyoming were notorious for vice and violence. They use to say that whiskey ran in the streets and crimes like "garroting" were punished by lynch mobs that didn't wait for the accused to be brought to trial.

And yet, even though the boomtowns bubbled and burst and often crumbled into dust, the railroad did bring about permanent white settlement. A wagon trip over the Oregon Trail had once taken six weeks at best. That same trip could now be made in a matter of days.

More transcontinental routes and trunk lines connected places that had once seemed, in the words of New Mexico territorial governor Lew Wallace, "remote beyond compare." Sleepy provincial towns like Los Angeles, California became railroad boomtowns. The conquest of the continent, which had been such a laborious enterprise from the time of Columbus on, sped up to a degree that no one could have imagined.

The raw riches of the West, thousands of tons of ore from the mines, and cattle by the millions, could now flow east to be processed and consumed. And at the same time, the railroad brought all kinds of people and ideas into the West, people who had often violently disagreed with each other in other places. Laborers, soldiers, and wildcat miners came and went.

[picture of midwestern farmers]

But the West was also to attract people with middle-class aspirations, people who hoped to settle the country, and to make it grow. And it was these hopes that reflected the plans of the nation. How could Western boosters bring in more solid, stable American families to farm and to ranch and to do business? The first task was to unsettle the people who continued, stubbornly, to insist that this land was their land.

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