10 Railroads That Made America Great

10 Railroads That Made America Great
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Choo! Choo! On May 10, 1869, just four years after the end of the Civil War, a golden spike was driven into the ground at Promontory Point, Utah, in order celebrate the completion of the republic’s first transcontinental railroad.

Today, in May of 2019, the American railroad system is recognized as the best in the world, at least when it comes to efficiency in regards to moving freight, but this wasn’t always the case. Here are the 10 Railroads that Made America Great.

10. Union Pacific Railroad. The Union Pacific was responsible for laying the track from Omaha to Promontory Point. The men who worked for the company had to build a railroad through the Rocky Mountains and the Uintas. The railroad was a government charter, so it faced severe operational difficulties from the get-go. Still, Washington managed to pour enough money into the Union Pacific that it achieved its goal. By the time the railroad dissolved in 1880 (less than 20 years after its founding), the Union Pacific had united the coasts of the American republic.

9. The Central Pacific Railroad was the line that came from the west in order to meet the Union Pacific in Utah. The CP’s line started in Sacramento and had to be built through the Sierra Nevadas and the high-altitude desert of the Great Basin. The Central Pacific was also a government charter, and therefore also faced stiff operational challenges, including corruption and labor strife. The Central Pacific Railroad is probably most famous for the Chinese laborers it hired to build its track.

8. Pennsylvania Railroad. A privately run railroad, the Pennsylvania Railroad was founded in 1846 in Philadelphia and grew into the largest corporation in the world by 1882. In 1946, 100  years after its founding, the famous railroad company reported its first loss. Ever. The Pennsylvania Railroad spread out from Philadelphia into Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, New York, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, the northern tip of Michigan and parts of West Virginia. In 1968, the Pennsylvania Railroad merged with a regional rival and ceased to exist.

7. Southern Pacific Railroad. Founded in 1865, the Southern Pacific line began in New Orleans and connected through Houston, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Portland, and Ogden-Salt Lake. The Southern Pacific was involved in a legal dispute with Santa Clara (Calif.) county in 1886, and the ruling from the case laid the foundation for present-day legal protections that corporations enjoy here in the United States. Southern Pacific’s telecommunications network created Sprint (the phone company) and helped lay the groundwork for America’s fiber optic network. Plagued by financial problems, Southern Pacific is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad.

6. Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railroad. The first operating railroad line in the great state of Texas, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado (BBB&C) Railroad was supposed to go from Houston (where Buffalo Bayou is located) up to Austin and on through northern Texas to connect with ports along the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. The first segment was completed in 1853. All was going according to plan until the Civil War forced construction to halt, and when the Blue and the Gray finally stopped fighting, the BBB&C found itself in dire financial straits, eventually going broke during Reconstruction. The line was bought by another Texas company and instead of going north, to Austin, it continued west and connected Houston to San Antonio and, eventually, El Paso, where it connected to the much larger Southern Pacific Railroad and guaranteed that a transcontinental route through Texas would run west-east through southern Texas. It’s now part of the Union Pacific family.

5. Santa Fe. The Santa Fe line was founded in 1859 to connect Topeka, Kan. with Santa Fe. That connection never happened, but that’s what makes the Santa Fe’s history so great. (Today, by the way, the Santa Fe is part of the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) Railroad system, the largest in the United States.) The Santa Fe Railroad hustled. It built a network through the Rockies, built lines into Chicago and the Puget Sound, and even traded its rail lines at one point in time, opting to give up its track in Mexico for track in the San Joaquin Valley.

4. Northern Pacific Railroad. A government-sponsored enterprise from the start, the Northern Pacific was saddled with financial problems throughout its short lifespan. The railroad also achieved an amazing feat: building a transcontinental line from the Great Lakes to the Puget Sound. President Ulysses S. Grant drove in the final spike himself, in Montana, in 1873. The Northern Pacific was never able to compete with the privately financed railroads, and bankruptcies, labor violence, and corruption followed the line wherever it went. Still, the Northern Pacific survived in one form or another until 1970, when it was absorbed into the then Burlington Northern Railroad system, a private company now owned, indirectly, by Warren Buffet.

3. Western Pacific Railroad. There were actually two Western Pacific Railroads in American history. The first Western Pacific was responsible for building the westernmost portion of the transcontinental railroad, which started in San Jose and ended in Sacramento. In 1870, it was bought out by Central Pacific Railroad. The second Western Pacific Railroad was not even founded until 1903, well after the railroad system had linked the republic. The railroad became famous throughout the world as a leisure line (the California Zephyr was a part of WP’s system).

2. Mobile & Ohio Railroad. Stretching from Mobile, Ala. to Columbus, Ken. (in the Ohio Valley), the M&O Railroad was completed just before the beginning of the Civil War, and was the longest railroad in the country operating under a single corporate charter. The M&O was used by the Confederate government liberally throughout the war, and because of that she was attacked often and had to be rebuilt almost from scratch after the war ended. The M&O also had to find a way to cover the $5 million that the Confederate government had borrowed from it. The railroad survived and even thrived for almost 80 years after the Civil War. The M&O operated under Southern Railway’s direction from early in the 20th century until 1940, when Southern sold its M&O bond to Gulf, Mobile and Northern Railroad.

1. The Great Northern Railway. A privately financed company, the Great Northern Railway has been the subject of much veneration in American libertarian circles. (The line was amazing. It began in Saint Paul and ended in Seattle.) American libertarians hold up James J. Hill (the founder and chief executive of GNR) and his corporate empire as an exemplar of liberty, but this is not quite true. Sure, the Great Northern Railway refused to get financing from Washington, but it sure received lots of other help from D.C., and Hill spent quite a bit of time with his friends on Capitol Hill. Most perniciously, the Great Northern Railway sought Washington’s help with land issues that the Native Americans, who had more clout up north due to a variety of factors, kept mucking up. With that being said, the Great Northern Railway did what no other line in American history has been able to do: build a transcontinental railroad system without a government charter.

Further thoughts

The superficial story of the railroads in the United States is focused on bringing the country together physically as well as spiritually and politically. Meh.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find out why American railroads are so popular in scientific and literary circles. The richer story to be told by the railroads describes rent-seeking in luscious detail. The railroads help to explain corruption in nominally democratic societies. The story of American railroads highlights the best and the worst of humanity itself.

All aboard!


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