Our Topics have been selected to focus on particular episodes in U.S. History where technology and social change correlate. The documents and case studies presented here are arranged in these Topics as a means for you to compare and contrast perspectives, make connections otherwise difficult to observe in a large archive, and jump from these to other points for further research and investigation in the project. Documents include personal letters, newspaper articles, images, business documents, and more.
Slavery and Southern Railroads Some of the first, longest and most ambitious railroads in the nation were built in the South beginning in the late 1820s. By 1860 the South's railroad network was one of the most extensive in the world, and nearly all of it had been constructed with slave labor. Moreover, railroad companies became some of the largest slaveholders in the South.
Railroad Work and Workers The construction of the railroads brought engineers, survey teams, and Irish, African American, and Chinese laborers into construction crews. Railroad workers built tunnels, laid track, constructed stations, repaired engines and cars, and operated the trains. The number of railroad employees tripled every decade after 1840. By 1880 418,956 Americans worked for railroad companies. These workers were highly mobile, ethnically and racially diverse, and increasingly significant in shaping the nation's society, culture, and economy.
The Civil War and Strategy When Union commanders assembled their forces in ways that took full advantage of the technologies, and when they practiced a new form of war making we might call "railroad generalship," they demonstrated a nearly unassailable confidence in the modern nation. In the Atlanta Campaign William T. Sherman set out to destroy the Confederate railroads and bring the war into the South's "interior." This capacity for a massive army to operate in the "interior" became the ultimate modern form of war-making that railroads made possible.
The 1877 Railroad Strike The Great Railway Strike of 1877 brought the nation's commerce to a screeching halt, and the violence that erupted in Baltimore and Pittsburgh shook the nation. In the aftermath of Civil War and Reconstruction, the great strike seemed especially ominous. Railroad workers led this first national strike in American history, exploiting the very network that was the instrument of national unity.
Politics and Corruption Railroads in the nineteenth century were inseparable from politics. State legislatures issued their corporate charters and determined where their lines would run. The federal government too played a role early on, as the Illinois Central in 1850 gained the first land grant to build its line--a whopping 2.9 million acres. Political parties--Whig, Republican, and Democrat--sought to turn these powerful entities to their electoral advantage. Corruption followed, of course. But the boundaries of corruption in the nineteenth century were largely undefined. Political and corporate men often justified their actions as legitimate, their malfeasance as warranted or sanctioned.
Land Sales, Migration and Immigration The first land grant railroad in the United States was to the Illinois Central in 1850, and the company pioneered land sales, immigration, and advertising strategies that other corporations would adopt. The context, however, of the Illinois Central land grants was the deepening sectional crisis of the 1850s. Later, the coming of the railroads to western America had a profound impact on land ownership and land value. This Topic examines the effect that railroads, as well as other factors such as nationality and ethnicity, had on land sales in the West.
The Origins of Segregation Both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs escaped slavery in the South, but their first experience of freedom in the North came on the railroad--and with it the sting of racial segregation. Segregation in the South developed later in the 1880s through laws requiring separate railroad cars for black and white.
William Jennings Bryan's 1896 Presidential Campaign In an unprecedented move, William Jennings Bryan chose to use the new railroad system to travel during his 1896 campaign for the presidency. Through this strategy, Bryan was able to personally give speeches before thousands of people in hundreds of cities and towns during his seven month campaign. The railroad became a political issue, igniting protests from farmers, shippers, and workers.
Tourism and Mobility Mobility around the new networks of railroad, telegraph, and steamships sustained travel and tourism that transformed local spaces into imagined locations. Railroads built hotels, developed tourist destinations, and published brochures and pamphlets advertising these places. The railroad companies created the first infrastructure for tourism.
Representing the Railroad Artists, photographers, and illustrators drafted images of the railroad, seeking to represent the technology to a wide audience. Newspapers and magazines tried to characterize the technology. The railroads too participated in this effort, sending out artists' excursions, paying advertisers for slick brochures, and commissioning artwork. As a result competing images of the railroad circulated throughout the nineteenth century in different places and different times.