America’s Frontier Forever Changed

PrintPrintEmailEmail Writing about one small town at the end of the nineteenth century, Frances Weston Carruth put into words what everyone from Lexington, Nebraska, to Pullman, Washington, already knew: “The railroad station was [the small town’s] one connecting link with the outside world.” That link made the station both center and gateway. Like the town square in more eastern places, the western depot was a public space—a place to get the latest news and hear the freshest gossip. This was the place to check the time, inquire about the arrival of the new Sears catalogue, and argue about politics or the weather. Here were message blanks for Western Union and carts ready for stacks of boxes from Railway Express. Heading up Main Street to Railroad Avenue meant connecting with a wider world. No place seemed more alive, more up-to-date than the depot. For many westerners, the sounds of the modern world were the locomotive whistle and the click of the telegraph sounder. 

If the depot and its freight house were the town’s real center, then they were also the gateway to both town and countryside. Nearly everything that came into Bennett, Nebraska, or Granger, Wyoming, passed through the station house gateway. Ready-made clothing, farm implements, seeds for new crops, pianos, books, and the entire stock for hardware stores, mercantiles, and millineries came by rail, entering western life on the platform. Social distances seemed less as farm families and merchant households enjoyed the benefits of the same stoves, washing machines, and bed frames—all brought by rail and passing through the depot gateway. Waiting “down at the depot,” all could see the wonders of Chicago and New York reach places like Havre, Montana, and North Yakima, Washington.

Those mail-order treasures—boxes of the new Gem safety razor or jars of Pompeian massage cream—were perhaps luxuries. Life in town or on the farm might get along without the latest razor or face cream. But on the Great Plains and into eastern Montana and Wyoming, there was one essential commodity that came by rail and changed the face of the western landscape. It might have been the age of the iron horse and the iron road, but the Great Plains West was also a world in search of wood. As historian William Cronon writes, “For the first time in the history of North American frontier settlement, would-be farmers and town-builders had moved out of the forest and into a grassland where ample supplies of lumber were beyond easy reach.” No variety of lumber was more desirable for building houses than the white pine of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Chicago was the place where trees became lumber. And it was Chicago railroads that took the forest to the plains. In 1880 a journalist for the Northwestern Lumberman neatly summarized the relationship between northern forests, Chicago, railroads, and the changing appearance of the West: Every new settler on the plains “means one more added to the vast army of lumber consumers, one more house to build. But it means more, it means the extension of railroad lines” to carry lumber to an ever-expanding market. 

In a rhetorical flourish so typical of the time, the writer conjured up the image of “churches, school houses and stores, sidewalks, paved streets, and manufactures” all built on the foundation of lumber carried west by rail. In many ways this grand prophecy came true. The sod house frontier so much a part of Great Plains mythology—quickly came and went. Settlers on the Great Plains—especially women—longed for the comfort and status of a frame house. Few things changed the architectural look of the interior West more than a frame house, a sound barn, and a windmill—all made possible by lumber from Chicago. The settlers’ West was built with wood from logged-over forests of the Great Lakes.

Some 20 years after he watched the golden spike ceremony at Promontory, Union Pacific contractor Sidney Dillon confessed that “none of us dreamed that the future of the Pacific roads depended on the business that would grow out of the peopling the deserts it traversed.” Visions of Pacific trade did not vanish, but they were increasingly supplemented by strategies to extract what the interior West grew, grazed, or mined, and turn them to profit. The West could provide the things that other things were made of. 

That business—the wheat, cattle, and minerals that flowed out of the West—also passed through the station gateway. If the actual objects were loaded somewhere down the rail line, it was at the depot that the market information began the process of turning nature into commodities. Markets need information and the depot was “information central.” Just as the natural world of northern forests became lumber for sale, western nature was transformed to become bread and meat for eastern markets. The railroad was at the heart of all those transformations.

Emerson was right. The railroad was the magician’s rod in the West. But prophets and reformers in the century after Emerson shifted the image from magic want to something more sinister, perhaps something like Frank Norris’s The Octopus.

Whatever the image, railroads had shaped the West.