What Was the Impact of the Railroads?

Historians argue over the fact whether railroads determined the pace of economic development in nineteenth-century America. Robert Fogel, among others, tried to measure the impact of transportation innovations on American development using tools of new economic history, and concluded that the contribution of railroads was not as crucial as some had maintained[92]. The issue is a controversial one, but the fact remains that the railroads came, saw, and conquered nineteenth century America in more ways than one.

They were liberating - increasing mobility and speed across the continent - as well as confining: they held the power of economic life and death over many communities, often abusing that power. The railroads played an important role in developing new concepts of management and brought forth giant corporations, but usually accompanied by obscure financial practices and greed. They provided employment for thousands and thousands of workers, but the conditions under which these laborers had to work and live made them revolt and informed the nation of the hardships of the working class. The railroads were also to a great extent responsible for the settlement of the West, but simultaneously helped extinguish the Native American population. They were a prize to be won for each part of the divided nation in the volatile years before the Civil War, yet linked the nation together with the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. They were born and raised on government money, yet eventually became the first and most heavily regulated segment of the private sector[93].

The importance of solving the question whether or not the railroads were the prime stimulus for American economic development fades when focusing on the effect they had on society as a whole. One cannot help but wonder how different America would have looked and functioned had it not been for the railroads.