Towns Shapes

Even within the rigid grid pattern they all followed, there was considerable variety in railroad town plats. Town shapes developed in a way that showed experience determined which shape functioned best. The earliest conception was a parallel arrangement with the railroad track as the axis of symmetry. It had always been commonplace for businesses to face the artery of commerce, whether that was a road, a canal or a waterfront. Perhaps the railroads were imitating that layout. This arrangement created two business streets, with buildings facing each other across 300 feet of railroad right-of-way. The wide strip provided room for elevators, coal yards, and other businesses that needed direct access to the railroad. Rarely both railroad-facing business streets developed equally; if First Avenue North was the major concentration, then First Avenue South became "the other (or the wrong) side of the tracks" with a row of saloons and cheap motels. A strip of land the size of a football field separating the business district kept it from developing as a single unit.

symmetric town (explanation)

Placing businesses on both sides of the same street made more sense, and this arrangement soon gained preference. In most cases the business street crossed the railroad tracks at an angle, so that only one crossing was necessary between the two parts of the commercial district. The tracks bisected Main Street; thus the form was orthogonal. The train depot was generally located near this crossing. But still towns continued to develop more on one side of the tracks than on the other, and the orthogonal plan soon evolved into its final phase, the T-town. In this arrangement, the town itself was built on just one side of the tracks, with Main Street at a straight angle. This was a stable solution, more acceptable to the railroad and the townspeople. It became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries- the final phase of US railroad building, when railroad towns were built mainly along branch and subsidiary lines. But it was dominant in the Canadian West, where the railroad building phases took place about two decades later.


orthogonal town                        T-town

In the long run, the success of a town was determined by the shifting conditions of retailing and marketing. A developing business class would bring life to a town and contribute to funneling traffic to the railroad, as was the intention of the railroad company. This, in effect, had a democratizing influence, by allowing people with little capital to start a business. Many who did that grew discontented, and soon became community leaders. They bundled their strengths, founded stronger financial institutions, and bought out weaker competitors. This behavior was applauded by railroad officials, despite the fact that such economic evolution was a result of actually surviving the railroad's blueprint for settlement.

Most railroad towns were failures. They could not keep their heads above water when in the 1920's technological changes began making small towns obsolete. This is especially true for the towns built during the wave of railroad building between 1905 and 1915. These static towns were unfit for a world in constant motion. If the railroads had played a less active role in creating towns, there probably would have been a greater variety in towns and cities. The urban geography of the West may have had a much different appearance than it does today.