About the Project

This project seeks to document and represent the rapid and far-reaching social effects of railroads and to explore the transformation of the United States to modern ideas, institutions, and practices in the nineteenth century. The railroad was the first and most complex national system in American history. The records of this system's colossal growth are as diverse as they are voluminous, ranging from massive and detailed corporate records to editorials, cartoons, poetry, songs, and even abandoned track lines in today's landscape. While many histories have addressed the railroad's importance, we need a new approach that takes account of how the railroad triggered unexpected outcomes in American society and how the system became wedded into the fabric of modern America. Railroads and the Making of Modern America seeks to use the digital medium to investigate, represent, and analyze this social change and document episodes of the railroad's social consequence.

Over the coming months the project team will add documents and visual materials on key subject areas we are currently investigating. These include:the development of slavery around railroad growth in the South and of free labor on railroads elsewhere, the migration and settlement of railroad lands, and the political opposition to railroads around rates. For each the emphasis of the research will be to create interpretive visualizations and to explore and represent the ways railroads changed understandings of space and time.

As a part of our larger initiative, we hope to have the input of railroad history experts to develop an open-source, accurate, base historical GIS of the growth of the North American railroad network over time. This challenge calls for far-reaching collaboration and we will open a part of the site for contribution to this aspect of the project.

Much of this site is and will be a "work in progress." Our intent is to develop materials that are useful for our research purposes and for teaching American history in both the U.S. survey course and other more specialized courses on the 19th century. We will be reindexing, proofing, correcting, and editing documents as we go, so we hope that our readers will bear with us as we add to and refine our work. The goal here is not to produce a documentary editing project but a research and teaching platform to test hypotheses and create visualizations of complex processes.

As a whole, this project aims to collect and make available a wide array of materials to shed light on the ways Americans experienced the railroads in the nineteenth century. The intent for this project is not to develop corporate histories of the railroads, which have been done very well elsewhere, but instead to capture and represent the social history of the railroad and its role in American history. These larger aims will guide the selection process of topics and materials.