Travel Time--How Railroads Shaped Time and Space

By 1880 the Burlington Route connected Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as Columbus, Nebraska, to a vast network of lines.  Roundtrip passenger rates in 1880 from these points allowed travel into the mid-West and to the east coast.  Service concentrated into Chicago, while southern Illinois was less accessible and more expensive. With digital mapping we might be able to take a fresh approach to these problems and see rates for what they were:  a complex system of time, space, and value for Americans of nearly every group, interconnecting the nation in ways never before experienced. 

When the Burlington line opened a new road into Wyoming and Montana that joined the Northern Pacific in 1894, for example, the change in time and space for travellers was immediately apparent. The new route ran from Sheridan, Wyoming, to Billings, Montana. Its opening reconfigured the position of Omaha and Lincoln on a changing map of linked economies.  Figuratively speaking, their "location" changed with the opening of this new route, but few thought of these matters in figurative terms--such changes were considered quite literal. "The building of this line is of incalculable benefit to Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, bringing a territory of some 1,500 miles in extent almost to the doors of these cities," the editor of the Omaha Bee exclaimed. The new route was, in effect, a drastic short cut to the Northwest shaving off 295 miles of a trip from Omaha to Helena, 385 miles off the trip to Spokane. The consequences were that a region that had been a "sealed book" to wholesalers in the Missouri Valley was now opened, and what had been a "monopoly" controlled by St. Paul and Minneapolis was "now the first time brought into civilization's rim."  The agent of all this progress was, according to the Omaha editor, the "progressive pioneer methods of the Burlington system of rails." The fact that the system now encompassed nearly 7,000 miles was not considered a threat in this context but a boon.