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How Railroads Forever Changed the Frontier

April 2024
6min read

They created towns and became the center of Western life, enabling wheat, cattle, and minerals to flow out of the West

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. 

But for all its air of commerce on “railroad time,” the depot meant more than stamping tickets, writing train orders, and marking up waybills. 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.


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