What was the single biggest game-changing technological advance of the 19th century? Not exactly an easy question to answer considering how many things were invented between 1800 and 1899. But if I had to choose, I would definitely make an argument for trains. With the advent of the railroad, countries shrank dramatically. People and goods could suddenly be transported vast distances in short amounts of time. Nowhere was this more evident than in the American West.
I happen to love trains. Like, a LOT. I once took the train from Orlando, Florida to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That is still one of the most awesome trips of my life. Someday I want to ride the train all the way across this country, from Philadelphia to Seattle. I love the sound of trains in the distance too. So here I go, rhapsodizing about how amazing the advances that the railroad brought to the West in the 1800s as giddily as a tween talking about the latest Twilight movie….
Steam engines were originally invented for industrial use, to power looms in the burgeoning textile industry of the 1700s and to operate pumps in mines at that same time. These first steam engines were huge. They could do amazing things, but not on a practical level. So began the quest to build smaller, more compact engines that would be suitable for transportation. Because the notion that this technology could be used to make things go faster was definitely on people’s minds.Horse-drawn “railways” had been in use from ancient times, but it was in Britain in the first three decades of the 19th century that steam locomotives were first developed. Those first thirty years or so were all about proving that the concept could be a reality. Early steam engines, like Richard Trevithick’s unnamed locomotive in 1804, Matthew Murray’s Salamanca in 1812, and George Stephenson’s Locomotion of 1825 and The Rocket of 1829 were fascinations whose principals were soon put to industrial and commercial use. By the end of the 1820s small railways were popping up between the major industrial cities of England’s north to transport goods and people.
The first railroads in the United States were the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, developed in 1829 and the South Carolina Railroad, which had its first journey on Christmas day, 1830. By the end of 1830 there was only just under 40 miles of railroad tracks laid in all of the US. Ten years later there were over 2,750 miles of railroad tracks in use, both industrially and commercially. These mini-railroads started out as ways to move things from a specific point A to a specific point B. Then people got smart and started to connect them. Before long trains were moving over long distances in short periods of time. It was a transportation revolution.
The early railroads in the eastern half of the States are all well and good, but it was the Transcontinental Railroad that made all the difference to the West. California and the Oregon Territory had laid vast stretched of railroad tracks to make local travel quicker and easier. Meanwhile, railroads from the east began to spread further and further west to and across the Mississippi. It was inevitable that these two separate systems run by separate companies would come together to cut the US down to size.
The First Transcontinental Railroad was a joint venture between the Central Pacific Railroad of California and the Union Pacific Railroad. It was such an important project that the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 that authorized the construction and made it physically and fiscally possible were passed during the Civil War. Construction was begun in 1863 and finished in 1869. The two rail lines met at Promontory Summit, Utah with the famous driving of the golden spike on May 10, 1869.I could write a thousand blog posts about the experience of constructing the First Transcontinental Railroad – the factors that went in to mapping the route, the Irish and Chinese immigrants who constructed the track from both sides, the technological triumphs and the tragic setbacks – but I’ll leave you with a few things to chew on instead.
It took the Lewis and Clark Expedition from May of 1804 to November of 1805 to travel from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean. That’s about 19 months. The average trip across the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to California took 4-6 months. When the First Transcontinental Railroad was first completed, it took roughly two weeks to make the journey. According to the itinerary on Amtrak, it takes about 3 days to take the train from Philadelphia to Seattle.
When the Oregon Trail opened around 1843, moving west meant leaving everything you knew behind with the strong possibility that you would never see it or be able to communicate with it again. Twenty-five years later the journey was theoretically possible several times over and lines of communication were opened. And that is the power of the railroad. That’s why it gets my vote for the most important invention of the 19th century. And that’s why I think trains are awesome!