The Industrial Revolution

At the time when America was engaged in a revolution to win its independence, a revolution of perhaps even greater importance was in progress in England: the emergence of modern industrialism. Hand-operated tools were being replaced by power-driven machines, which permitted manufacturing to become more rapid and extensive. This had profound social and economic consequences. This industrial revolution was challenging, and often shattering, centuries of traditions, of social patterns, of cultural and religious assumptions.

In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, nothing even remotely comparable to the English industrial revolution was occurring in America. In fact, it was opposition to this kind of economic growth occurring in England that had helped the Republicans defeat the Federalists in 1800. Yet even while Jeffersonians warned of the dangers of rapid economic change, they were witnessing a series of technological developments that would eventually ensure the transformation of the United States. A number of immigrants with advanced knowledge of English technology arrived in the United States eager to introduce new machines, such as the spinning mill, to America. But there was technology of domestic origin as well. The cotton gin, which allowed a single operator to clean as much cotton in a few hours as a group of workers had once needed a whole day to do, is one of the most important examples.

But industrialization requires a transportation system that allows the efficient movement of raw materials to factories and of finished goods to markets. There was no such system in the United States in its early years, and thus there was no domestic market extensive enough to justify large-scale production. But efforts were under way that would ultimately remove the transportation obstacle. In river transportation, a new era began with the development of the steamboat. Meanwhile, the era that would become known as the turnpike era had begun too; toll roads ran from town to town[1]. Although the railroads played but a secondary role in America's transportation system in the 1820's and 30's, the work of the railroad pioneers became the basis for the great mid-century surge of railroad building that would link the nation together as never before. Railroads eventually became the nation's number one transportation system, and remained so until the construction of the interstate highway system halfway during the twentieth century[2].

The late nineteenth century belonged to the railroads. They were of crucial importance in stimulating economic expansion, but their influence reached beyond the economy and was pervasive in American society at large. The story of the Iron Horse in nineteenth-century America is one with many aspects and paradoxes and deserved a closer look. Which technological developments brought forth the railroads, and how were they managed once they grew beyond small companies? What role did they play in the turbulent times of the Civil War? How did they change the American landscape and its native people? What did the railroads mean to politicians, entrepreneurs, the working class, and immigrants? In short, what was the impact of the railroads on nineteenth-century American society?