How Railroads Forever Changed the Frontier


Half a century after engines touched pilot to pilot at Promontory, Utah, to complete the first transcontinental railroad, the imprint of the Iron Road was nearly everywhere in the American West. Some enthusiastic real estate promoters and railway officials even claimed that the railroads invented the West—or at least the national image of the West.With the exception of the federal government, no one institution more fully shaped the appearance and character of the West than the railroad. Evidence was everywhere. The presence and power of the railroad could be seen on every farm and ranch, in every booming western city and sleepy tank town, and in the lives of the natives and countless newcomers. A quarter century before that moment at Promontory, Ralph Waldo Emerson envisioned what the railroad might mean for American life. Addressing a Boston audience, he described railroads as “a magician’s rod, in its power to evoke the sleeping energies of land and water.” 

Nowhere did Emerson’s prediction seem more true than in the American West. Writing about Seward County, Nebraska, at the end of the 1880s, local historian W. W. Cox portrayed a West transformed by the railroad when he informed his readers that “a new railway has been commenced and completed, . . . opening up a great new artery of traffic, and bringing in its train joy and gladness for thousands of our people.” Joy and gladness were invisible emotions, but Cox assured his Seward County friends that a new railroad was “building up three new villages along the way, and infusing new life and activity into a fourth, and adding new life to the city.” Cox was sure that the earth itself would be touched by Emerson’s magic rod. 

But the railroad did more than simply give the West a new look. Trains and tracks out beyond Chicago and St. Louis symbolized progress, prosperity, and the promise of the future. For many Americans, railroads and the West seemed the embodiment of the American dream. Even if some westerners questioned the dream and feared its consequences, no one doubted that railroads in the West represented a power for change that was undeniable and perhaps even irresistible. 

At its most visible, the railroad West could first be found along the right-of-way, the “iron road.” Two photographs taken in 1866 at the beginning of the railroad West catch the spirit of the tracks on the Great Plains. Standing on the line of the l00th meridian at what is now Cozad, Nebraska, Union Pacific vice president and general manager Thomas C. Durant surveyed a trail of ties without rails heading west to the horizon. In the next photograph, Jack Casement’s track gang set rails to ties, tracking the West and laying the foundation for the railroad landscape. Railroad prophets might have promptly given the photographs a grand caption: “Here is the IRON ROAD, the Pathway for Progress, Profit, and Civilization.” 

The initial rights-of-way soon expanded to include telegraph poles and wires, which were just the beginning of the railroad landscape. Many westerners simply thought of the railroad and the telegraph as a single line of communication. That “line of communication” was a phrase and an idea that Thomas Jefferson had used in his instructions for Lewis and Clark. Western terrain had demanded much from Jefferson’s travelers; it asked even more of railroad planners and builders. Most of the West did not offer as level a country as the Union Pacific had followed through the Platte River Valley. Mountains, rivers, gullies, and ravines all stood as obstacles to be overcome by engineering skill and backbreaking labor. Soon enough the railroad landscape was filled with bridges, tunnels, cuts, and embankments. Here was an engineered West, a place as complex as any cluster of cities and factories. It seemed as if all of this had been done just for the benefit of an American empire. More than one Fourth of July orator could not resist the temptation to declare the railroad West the most manifest expression of America’s continental destiny. 

No matter how central the iron road was to the railroad West, every alert westerner knew that the railroad had created more than something built with wooden ties and steel rails. As historian Maury Klein put it, each railroad imagined itself as “a sovereign state.” The visible manifestation of that sovereignty came in what we might call the railroad establishment. In shops, sheds, roundhouses, and freight houses, the railroad placed itself firmly at the center of western life. Little wonder that so many towns laid out Main Street to run directly to the company buildings on Railroad Avenue. Main Street recognized the power and promise of Railroad Avenue. For every expectant immigrant or restless young person, the railroad was the way to the West or the way out of town to a wider world. The railroad was foreground; everything else was background.

No single building was more important in that railroad establishment than the depot. At the simplest level, the depot was where the company conducted its daily affairs. Here emigrants from a dozen places stepped off the cars and into a new life. Here townsfolk waited anxiously for the night express or knew it was time for bed when the Fast Mail whistled its way out to Denver or Seattle. Here a company man checked in freight, handed up orders to an engine crew, and presided over the telegraph key and sounder. At first glance, the depots at Deadwood, South Dakota, or Casper, Wyoming, were all about business: the business of profit in an orderly railroad universe.