How Railroads Propelled Our County to Where We Are Today

How Railroads Propelled Our County to Where We Are Today

Railroads have long been regarded as a major driving force in the formation and development of the United States. It is believed that this grand project has played a central role in defining the fabric of our country since its founding. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the impact that railroads have had over the last century and a half or so; their contributions have been felt by generations of Americans in a wide variety of ways, most notably in the area of economic development.

When railroads were first established, they helped spur the development of national markets across the country by creating a unified transportation system that could move goods and people quickly and reliably between regions. This allowed industrialists such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Jay Gould to gain significant wealth as large railroad companies such as the New York Central and the Southern Pacific spanned multiple states. The advent of railroads also helped facilitate the take-off of American industrialization in the period of 1843–1860. This was made possible by the railroads’ aid in decreasing transportation costs and as well as in introducing new products to commercial markets; both of these advances in turn stimulated the growth of coal, iron, and engineering industries which were essential for wider economic growth. Railroads also generated new investments and helped develop financial markets in the United States.

During the 1900s and 1970s, mainline railroads focused primarily on transporting individuals and freight over long distances. However, these railroads also ran suburban services near big cities, which usually ran simultaneously with Streetcar and Interurban lines. Unfortunately, these Interurban services proved unable to survive the Great Depression, leading to the failure of most services by this time. Railroads’ flagship passenger services during this era included multi-day trips on luxurious trains, but they were unable to compete with airlines in the 1950s. During the same decade, rural communities were served by twice-daily slow trains, though these too were eventually unable to stay afloat when the Railway Post Office cars were discontinued.

The rise of automobile travel in the 1930s was the first major dent in rail passenger market shares, and ultimately it was the development of the Interstate Highway System along with commercial aviation in the 1950s and 1960s that would deal the largest blows to rail transportation, both passenger and freight. The Great American Streetcar Scandal saw General Motors and others convicted of running the streetcar industry into the ground on purpose. In the end, there was little need for railroads to advertise their passenger service if their customers had already resorted to traveling by air and car.

The legacy of the railroad industry remains deeply embedded in our nation’s history. From facilitating economic growth to connecting Americans across the country, railroads have provided a number of lasting benefits to the country and undoubtedly changed our country for the better.

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