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The Transcontinental Railroad - Essay Example

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Transportation is something which Americans in modern times often take for granted. Whether it is the transportation of people, the transportation of commercial goods, or the transportation of ideas, America's development owes much to the transcontinental railroad…
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The Transcontinental Railroad
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Download file to see previous pages As an initial matter, it is necessary to understand the technological context of the time frame within which the railroad evolved as an integral part of the American infrastructure. There were, to be sure, important scientific breakthroughs which made such a continental project feasible. These breakthroughs came in both the United States of America and in Europe. Without these breakthroughs it would be very fair to argue that America might not have developed as quickly and as powerfully as it has in the past two hundred years.
In 1769, James Watt, a mechanical engineer from Scotland successfully patented a steam engine which had practical applications. To be sure, this technological breakthrough was not specifically designed for railroads, quite the contrary, it was most commonly associated with prototypes of steamboats in Great Britain. Nonetheless, the steam engine provided the world with a new source of power; prior to this scientific development, "for centuries, people had relied on wind, water, animal, and human power to drive the machines of industry, agriculture, and transportation."1 This new power source would stir the imaginations of leaders in governments and commerce alike. Although the steam engine would revolutionize many fields, it became an essential step in the evolution of the steam locomotive.
In 1825, a steam-driven locomotive pulled coal on a nine mile track in England. This experiment demonstrated that railroads and steam locomotives were indeed within the realm of possibility. If coal could be moved nine miles by rail then it could, in theory be moved nine hundred miles. It didn't take long for the concepts and the engineering prowess to take root in America; indeed, in 1830, a mere five years after the successful experiments in England, an American engineer, Peter Cooper, completed the construction of America's first steam locomotive. This steam locomotive was named the Tom Thumb and it carried both commercial goods and passengers along a thirteen mile stretch of railroad track from Baltimore to Ellicott's Mills, Maryland.2 From a technological point of view, the stage was set for the construction of grander and more far-reaching rail systems.
1.2 The Demographic and Intellectual Origins

Calls for expanded rail service were frequent and fervent. The origins of the fundamental idea, a transcontinental railroad connecting the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, "first surfaced in 1832 in an anonymous letter in the weekly newspaper- The Emigrant published in Ann Arbor Michigan. The idea did not die from that moment on."3 Significantly, this proposal for a transcontinental railroad proceeded even before the United States had settled treaty negotiations regarding the Oregon territory. 4
The speed with which the idea took root was staggering. Barely were the engineering feats accomplished, and with portions of the western territories unsettled or disputed by various powers, and plans were being made to connect the coasts by railroad.
These pressures to move westward, and to connect the Atlantic to the Pacific, were in

many ways driven by demographic pressures. The demographic origins of the

transcontinental railroad can be traced to the westward movement of settlers across the

Northern Plains.5 This trail would become an important route for emigration, and would

be later denoted more formally as the Oregon Trail.

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