For many people today, railroads are obsolete. But for much of the nineteenth century, they were the dominant mode of transportation and ushered in a new techno-economic paradigm. Like the growing data economy that we now live in, the railroad economy was a complex web of new tools that transformed labor, investment, travel, and the way businesses operated. It was a system that made our world flatter, but it also brought its own challenges, and those challenges persist to this day.
Railroads were not just transport systems; they became political and economic power brokers in their own right. The Northern Pacific Railroad, for instance, built a network of tracks that spanned 6,800 miles from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. In return, the corporation that owned and ran the railroad was granted millions of acres of land in 50-mile checkerboards on either side of its tracks.
The railway lowered the cost of shipping and threw open the frontier, allowing white settlement in areas that had previously been considered desolate and forbidding. It reduced the time it took to cross the country from Iowa to California from months on a wagon or weeks on a horse to just a few days by train.
Railroad companies became the largest boosters of the region, advertising the benefits of settling there in Eastern cities and spreading their influence to far-flung places like Europe and Asia. They charged fares for passengers and sold land to settlers, leveraging their influence to shape the development of towns and cities along their routes. They favored certain locations over others and bypassed others entirely, often leaving villages to wither.