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Railroads and the American Expansion into the West Essay

The transcontinental railroad construction began on the West Coast in 1863. The Chinese comprised a major part of the work force that built the Central Pacific railroad eastward, over the high Sierras, and across the deserts of the West — to Promontory, Utah, where on May 1869, it linked up with the Union Pacific whose workers, of Irish, Scottish, German and Italian descent, started in Omaha, Nebraska. The railroad reduced the cross-country trip, from Boston to San Francisco, from six months to one week.

When the rails from the opposite sides were almost a the point of meeting, the whole country listened in for news of Promontory. And then a cannon faced over the Pacific and one over the Atlantic went off simultaneously flashing a signal across the United States. Crowds cheered. There was a frenzy of celebration. It was an enormous event for the country. The famous Golden Spike ceremony on May 10, 1869 at Promontory, Utah, commemorated the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad.

The event marked the uniting of the country that had only recently fought the Civil War, and therefore had most special significance. The transcontinental nation became a reality (Williams 4) During the nineteenth century in America, the railroad represented civilization moving into the wilderness. As early as 1835 the U. S Senate discussed surveying the west to build a Transcontinental railroad. However, railroad technology had not yet developed strong enough motive power to cross the mountainous west. That great feat was left to the next generation of railroaders.

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During the 1840’s the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was coined to explain the growth of the United States. It was argued that the country had a right, a God-given destiny, to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans and to govern all the land in between. However, the nation’s fulfillment of its Manifest Destiny or expansion had to wait until after the Civil War. In the meantime, the railroads increased the population of the United States east of the Mississippi and created a bustling economy with its rapid transporting of goods to and from the larger east-coast cities.

Following the Civil War, the railroads made it possible for expansion into the Trans-Mississippi West to the Pacific Ocean. People in the area were assured there was a way to get their products to market, and to receive information and manufactured goods to make their work and lives easier. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the railroads merged vast territories into one nation by creating dependable economic, social and communications unity. The railroads linked California with states in the east, even as they helped the interior regions become quickly populated.

Towns sprang up along the track around water and coaling stations for the locomotives. Many times, the men who laid the tracks purchased property and settled down on farms. Prospectors for gold, silver, iron and oil continued to push west to dig mines, pan streams and drill fields in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and California. At the same time, growing cities back in the east needed more workers for heavy industries, textile mills, machine shops and garment factories and the need was met by migrating Blacks, French Canadians, and a new surge of immigrants from throughout Europe.

The first Transcontinental Railroad has been called the engineering marvel of the 19th century, it opened new economies in the American west, while consuming vast quantities of its natural resources; it birthed one way of life on the Great Plains, and destroyed another. In the process of relentless American expansion into the West, the Indian tribes were largely seen as obstacles. For their part, the Indians regarded the white settlers began streaming across the plains toward gold in California and then nearby Colorado, Indians as a new force of nature — mostly a dangerous one.

The white travelers spread smallpox and typhoid. The Indians faced it increasingly difficult to find game. Elk and buffalo, antelope was becoming more difficult to pursue because the people who came on the trains were also after them, either for food or sport. Even by the time Pacific Railroad construction began, starvation and disease had already wracked the Cheyenne, the Sioux and the Arapaho. Over the decades, the Indian tribes was severely affected by the encroachment of white settlers and the imposition of federal policies.

The United States adopted a policy of relocating tribes farther west or isolating them on reservations. As many see it now, the federal Indian policy was characterized by one primary goal: pushing aside Indian tribes to facilitate the exploitation of the West’s bountiful natural resources. The U. S. Government began to make treaties with the Plains Indians during the 1850s to 1871. Treaties remained as the legal means to snatch Indian homelands away from them, though they created Indian reservations throughout the West.

However, federal Indian policy during the period from 1870 through 1900 shifted the focus from creating reservations to gradually assimilating the Indians into the regular population. While the railroads were a symbol of the relentless march of progress, this progress exacted a heavy toll on many traditional peoples and their centuries-old cultures which were alien to its ways.

Reference: Williams, John Hoyt. A Great & Shining Road: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroad. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press. 1988.

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