Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 198
article date 01-08-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
U. S. Geographical Makeup & Railroad Growth 1828 – 1930
by Ellen Churchill Semple

From the 1930 book, American History and Its Geographic Conditions.

THE internal commerce of any country is based upon geographical conditions of size, location, zonal extent, and various topographical features tending to modify soil and climate. The larger a country, the greater in general are its chances of a diversified surface, contrast in climate, and hence the multiplicity of products which leads to exchanges.

Large extent means wide climatic variation such as that between New England and Florida, Minnesota and Louisiana. China’s location between the twentieth and fifty-fifth parallels gives it a basis for internal commerce similar to that of the United States between the twenty-fifth and forty-ninth. Mere zonal extent is not enough, however.

Russia’s long stretch from the fortieth to the seventieth parallel affords no advantages equal to those of China and the United States, because so much of the area falls within the polar and sub-polar region; yet in view of its monotonous lowland surface, only this great extent makes possible an internal Russian commerce between the forested north and the grain-fields and cattle pastures of the south. Everywhere along its southern border, from the Black to the Japan Sea, Russia has gradually enlarged its limits, with the result that it has diversified its products, as the cotton fields of Russian Turkestan show, while it has striven to secure for the same an outlet to the sea.

In the widely distributed British Empire, the distinction between internal and foreign commerce is lost; but the enormous size of that commerce, however it may be classified, has its basis in the area and the almost unlimited variety of geographical conditions embraced within the British possessions.


No other continuous political area in the world, with the possible exception of China, shows so many different geographical divisions distinguished by different staple products as the United States (Fig. 25). Underlying such diversity of products is the great variety of physical conditions — physiographic, climatic, soil, vegetational, mineral (Figs. 26 and 27). The interrelationships of these factors have produced a country more nearly self-sufficient than any other. Within its boundaries, however, the specialization of activity fostered by variety in resources and facilities of transportation has caused no section to become self-sufficing and each depends upon all the rest. The stock of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains moves now to the packing-houses on the Missouri and the Great Lakes which are feeding the concentrated industrial region of the North-east; now to those on the Pacific coast which are furnishing meat for the growing Hawaiian, Alaska, and Asiatic trade.

FIG. 25. (This caption also applies to the next picture, Western U.S.) AGRICULTURAL REGIONS OF THE UNITED STATES. This map shows the variety of agricultural and forest products of contrasted regions of the country. To it may be added the coal, iron, water power, and manufactures of the eastern United States and the mineral and oil sections of the west. The great railway net of the continent closely binds together the area of greatest production. Compare with Fig. 31. (Courtesy, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.)
FIG 26 (This caption also applies to the next picture, Western U.S.) ANNUAL RAINFALL MAP OF THE UNITED STATES. This map represents some of the most significant facts in the history of the United States. It pictures an enormous land which for thousands of miles on its coasts, receives enough precipitation to give the landscape at least the appearance of habitability. Such appearance and the rivers to enhance that impression, particularly in the lands east of the 20-inch line, lured the conquistadores and voyageurs far into the interior, with the result that development of the agricultural regions shown in Fig. 25 had the opportunity to begin early. It is true that conditions of transportation long arrested that progress, but the knowledge of the country which such early explorations provided proved of incalculable value. (Courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture.)

Fig 27. (Too complex for a web image but the following caption is interesting) SOIL REGIONS OF THE UNITED STATES. The early visitors, drawn inland by the appearance of a well-watered land, had little concern for soil science. Indeed, when they came upon that matchless expanse of prairie provided by nature in a generous mood, they deemed the soil of little value, for according to their experience, forested areas inasmuch as the vegetation grew so much taller, had greater productivity. Their descendants now survey the richest agricultural region in the world, a region enjoying that preeminence because of the rich soils which rainfall and vegetation have evolved in the sedimentary and glacial deposits of the interior lowlands. (Courtesy of the United States Bureau of Soils.)

The Columbia and Puget Sound regions send their lumber, canned fish, and wool to supply the East and get in exchange the finished merchandise which goes to swell the current of commerce. Cotton moves from the Gulf States to supply the spindles of more northern states and coal from the Appalachian mines supplies the plantations of the South.

“The statistics of internal trade movements show that both the outgoing foreign and the domestic commerce of the country depend principally upon the industries engaged in the production of these staple products. These industries are known as the fundamental or extractive industries, and include agriculture, mining, stock-raising, lumbering, and fisheries. Manufactures and merchandise contribute a comparatively minor portion of the total tonnage carried in a given year. The dividend-earning tonnage of the western roads, for example, is found chiefly in the volume of the grain and cattle shipments. Lake transportation is supported primarily by ore, grain, and coal freight. The southern railroads rely on cotton, lumber, coal, and fruits for their prosperity.” As much today as at the time they were penned in 1900, the preceding quoted statements testify to the nation-building qualities of a diversified continental area.

The vast scale of this geographical specialization of products involves enormous movements of freight. It has brought about the evolution of the American railroad system. As with the products, the railroads manifest the influences of variety in physical conditions, by falling into several well-defined divisions. Because chiefly of differences in population, however, these divisions do not wholly correspond to those formed by forest, mine, crop, or factory.


The section in which the greatest movements of internal commerce occur has become the channel of practically all the great trunk lines reaching from the interior to the Atlantic seaboard. This channel is constricted on the north by the downward bend of the Great Lakes and the geographical location of the Mohawk depression, and on the south by the rough upland of the Cumberland Plateau, the determining line of the Ohio Valley, and the central gaps of the Appalachian Mountains.

Norfolk and Boston, together with all the intervening ports, are its eastern termini on the Atlantic coast. To the west, so many different railroad lines extend to the foot of the Rockies, within the limits of the thirty-seventh and forty-third parallels, that a railroad map of Kansas and Nebraska looks like a closely striped fabric.

The meridional division of the sections of production in the Far West allows to the overland railroads a wider north-and-south distribution, so that their course is determined chiefly by the best passes through the Rocky Mountains and the location of the few good ports on the Pacific. One road ships eastward fresh fruits from southern California and Arizona, while a more northern line brings similar products from Oregon and Montana.


The great breadth of the United States and its highly favored interoceanic position has given to its railroads a predominant east-and-west direction. The expansion of the American people from seacoast to the interior, and from the interior on to the sea again, has been repeated in the history of American railroads, but at a tremendously accelerated rate.*

* Land speculation had an important part in this expansion of railroads in a picturesque though not altogether legitimate manner. The speculators contrived to gain bloated values for their holdings, then used such values and political pressure to justify demands for railway service. The United States owes much to such activity despite a considerable amount of unnecessary construction which stimulated the consolidation of many early lines.

Compare a transportation map of Oklahoma or Texas of 1900 with one of 1932 to gain an adequate idea of how accelerated that rate became. The star marking the center of population was poised on the summit of the Alleghenies in 1830, while infant railroads, only here and there, were crawling up the first easy grade of the Atlantic coastal plain (Fig. 28). Twenty-one years later a line of rails stretched through central New York to Lake Erie, and the Baltimore and Ohio road had reached an equally western point in Piedmont, West Virginia (79° W.L.), close on the trail of the star, which was moving down the sunset slope of the Allegheny Plateau towards Parkersburg and the Ohio. But eighteen years after that, an overland express drew in to the shores of San Francisco Bay, while the star still lingered in the valley of the upper Ohio.

Fig. 28. CENTERS OF POPULATION AND PRODUCTION. The center of population from 1790 to 1930 has moved from the head of the Chesapeake to western Indiana along the 39° parallel; the centers of wheat production show the influence of the early development of the Red River Valley of the north, and later, the southern Great Plains, while the center of all farms has moved slightly to the southwest. Data for the centers of manufacturing, wheat and corn for 1910 are not compiled. (From the United States Census.)

Railroad development in the United States proceeded with amazing rapidity, so that it soon outstripped that in all other countries, with the result that this country now has one third of the world’s railway mileage. Although consolidations and the many-sided competition of truck, bus, private automobile, and airplane have, in recent years, led to an actual decline in mileage, the country still enjoys the facilities of 250,000 miles of trackage. (See Fig. 31.)

The great size of the territory, its long distances, made railroad communication more necessary than in Europe. Its simple continental build, yielding long stretches like the Atlantic plain, the Mississippi Valley, the prairies, and the Pacific Valley, was favorable to railroad construction because of the relatively few obstacles which it presented. Moreover, the oneness of our country, as opposed to the political dismemberment of Europe, was conducive to the operation of great through lines and that consolidation of interests which early appeared.

In the first decade of their history, these roads, which in forty years were to rib the continent with steel, were merely accessories to established routes of water travel; or they united some adjacent interior town with the seaboard; or they served as a short cut across the land between two ports which had previously established active intercourse by more devious coastwise communication.

Influence of Established Routes of Water Travel.
Among those railroads having for objective an established waterway, we find the short line running sixteen miles from Carbondale to Honesdale (1828) and connecting the Lackawanna coal-mines with the Delaware and Hudson Canal; the line of seventeen miles from Albany to Schenectady, opened in 1831 to accommodate passengers on the Erie Canal by saving them the long detour of the waterway between these two points; the road southward from Saratoga to Schenectady (21.5 miles) opened in 1832, and the branch off this line from Ballston to the Hudson at Troy (25 miles), completed in 1835; the road from the head of Lake Cayuga southward to navigation on the Susquehanna River (34 miles), opened in 1834.

The railways over the high land between Philadelphia and Columbia on the lower Susquehanna (81 miles), and the Portage Road over the summit (2491 feet elevation) of the Allegheny Mountains (36 miles) just east of Johnstown, both opened in 1834, to form links in the canal route joining Pittsburgh and Philadelphia; the Baltimore and Ohio, which in 1833, after a piecemeal construction, extended to Harpers Ferry (81 miles) on the Potomac, and there tapped the canalled river whereby passengers avoided the long detour of water travel around the end of the Potomac peninsula.

The short independent road from Harpers Ferry up the Shenandoah Valley to Winchester (32 miles), opened in 1836; the little roads in Louisiana from Port Hudson on the Mississippi (21.5 miles) northeast to Clinton, opened in 1833, from Bayou Sara in the same vicinity to the town of Woodville (27.5 miles), opened in 1842, and that from New Orleans running eight miles to Carrollton, opened in 1835 (Fig. 29).

Railroads in Operation in 1840.

All these roads, with the exception of two, were distinguished by very short length, which emphasized their auxiliary character. But the last one to be mentioned in this class, the road between Boston and Albany (1842), owing to the lack of inland waterways in New England, had to strike two hundred miles across hill country and river valley to reach the growing western commerce which was coming out by the Erie Canal. This road, therefore, owing to the side-tracked position of Boston in relation to the great interior routes of the country, had to leave the convenient level of the tidewater and lowland, and take a more difficult upland course to the debouchment point of the Erie Canal. Hence in point of length, which is the measure of urgency, it resembles the Baltimore—Potomac and the Philadelphia—Columbia lines; all three tap established routes to the productive trans-Allegheny country.

Advance in All-Rail Routes.
The second class of early railroads comprises those aiming to connect inland points with the seaboard, which commands the world’s great waterway. They are characterized as a whole by greater length than the first class. Among them we find the germ of the Boston and Albany, the road running from Boston to Worcester (44 miles), opened in 1835 and extended to Springfield in 1838; the line from Boston to Lowell (26 miles) in 1835; from New Haven to Hartford in 1839 and extended along the easy route up the well-populated Connecticut Valley to Springfield in 1844, to Greenfield in 1846, to South Vernon on the Vermont border in 1849, whence it branched off up the little Ashuelot River to Keene, New Hampshire, in 1851.

The road up the Housatonic Valley from Bridgeport, Connecticut, formed conjunction with the Boston and Albany route at West Stockbridge on the New York state line in 1842; the Philadelphia and Reading road (98 miles) and a branch from Lancaster on the already established Columbia and Philadelphia line running off 54 miles to Harrisburg, both opened as early as 1838, and that in spite of competing canals; a line from Portsmouth at the mouth of the James River in Virginia running 80 miles back from the coast to Weldon, North Carolina, opened early in 1835; one from Charleston, South Carolina, to Hamburg on the Savannah River, opposite Augusta, opened in 1833, when its 135 miles made it the longest continuous line in the world, and extended by a branch to Columbia in 1840, whereby the cotton of the interior could be more readily concentrated in the chief port of the southern Atlantic seaboard; and finally another road subserving a like purpose, opened in 1841 throughout the 192 miles between Savannah and Macon, Georgia.

Coastal Railroads.
The third class of early railroads was designed to connect coast points, and therefore, from Pamlico to the eastern end of Long Island Sound, had to compete with the inside coast passage of canal and bay and the highway of the open ocean. But the circuitous ocean route from point to point and the slow progress through the canals, winter storms on the outside passage and ice blockade on the inner channels, necessitated more direct and reliable communication. Hence we find the early development of what we may call the coast or “fall line” railroad.

The dates of construction of this geographical line of roads, made piecemeal by different companies, as were all early ventures of this sort, are instructive as indicating the intensity of water competition, which varied with the directness of the sea route. The railroad from Boston to Providence appeared as early as 1835, because it cut off the long detour of the sea-way around Cape Cod. It was supplemented in 1837 by a road from Providence to Stonington, Connecticut, which landed passengers and goods at the entrance of the protected course of Long Island Sound and thus avoided the dangerous navigation around Point Judith at the southern extremity of Rhode Island. Otherwise this road, which ran along within two miles of the coast in order to avoid the hundred feet elevation line of the interior, did not greatly shorten the distance between Providence and Stonington.


The Sound route from Stonington to New York is safe and direct. Hence we find the railroad from New York to New Haven did not open until 1849, and that from New Haven to New London in 1852. Along the eastern shore of Massachusetts, also, where exceptional maritime conditions had produced a race of seamen, railroads developed somewhat slowly in competition with coastwise communication. The Eastern Railroad, consolidated from several minor lines running directly northward near the coast, was opened between Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in November, 1840, and extended two years later to Portland, Maine. This road served the manufacturing area of eastern Massachusetts and competed with the longer sea route around Cape Ann; but its branch running from Beverly out to Gloucester and Rockport on the extremity of this peninsula was not constructed until 1847. Plymouth waited for rail connection with Boston until 1846.

“Fall Line” Roads
South of New York Bay, more devious sea routes between the leading tidewater cities, due to the long projections of the New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and Carolina peninsulas, and incidentally the location of the national capital on the medial one of the series, early determined the construction of a chain of railroads across their base. The deep-running estuaries of this stretch of coast, necessitated the location of the railroad approximately along the “fall line” from New York south to Goldsboro, North Carolina; but there it left the one hundred foot elevation line and dropped down to Wilmington at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Following this road in detail, we find that the earliest link in the chain reflected the active intercourse between New York and Philadelphia. It ran from Camden, on the Delaware River just opposite Philadelphia, 64 miles to South Amboy on Raritan Bay; it was begun in 1830 and finished in 1834, four years before the completion of the Delaware and Raritan Canal. In 1839 a second railroad (31 miles) was opened between Bordentown and New Brunswick, the termini of the canal, parallel to the first road in its eastern half. A line opened between Jersey City and New Brunswick (34 miles) in 1838 completing the communication with the Hudson River and New York.

From Philadelphia southward, the railroad, following closely the line of one hundred feet elevation, was opened in 1837 through Wilmington, Delaware, to Baltimore; there it connected with the Washington branch of the Baltimore and Ohio, which had already been in operation three years. From Washington the Potomac, owing to its southward course as far as Acquia Creek, long persisted as a link in the line of communication between the national capital and Richmond. A road was opened in 1837 between Richmond and Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock near the bend of the Potomac, but not until 1872 was the line extended to Washington and the steamer trip from Acquia Creek dispensed with. A writer in 1873 deplores this as the sacrifice of “one of the most pleasurable features of the trip between Washington and Richmond.”

From Richmond a short line (22 miles) was finished southward to Petersburg in 1838, to complete connection with an existing road (since 1833) which ran closely along the one hundred foot elevation line across the base of the deep peninsula of southern Virginia directly southward through Emporia to Weldon, North Carolina. Difficulty of communication down the rivers of North Carolina, the long detour around Albemarle Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and the James River had undoubtedly dictated this cut-off road. The continuation of the line southward through Goldsboro to Wilmington was not made until 1840, a fact which reflects the slow economic development of North Carolina at that time.

To the geographer, the interesting fact in this long chain of railways from New York City to southern North Carolina is its close adherence to the line of one hundred foot elevation. This is the line marking cities, mills, and the head of navigation on the rivers or their estuaries, retreating farther and farther from the seaboard from the mouth of the Hudson southward. This western limit of the coastal plain presented few problems to railway building beyond the bridging of the wide drainage streams, which in early days were crossed by ferries from station to station.

Piedmont Railways.
The smooth, even slope of the Piedmont upland and the broad trough of the Appalachian Valley also offered few obstacles. Hence as the development of the hill and interior valley country progressed, these natural longitudinal routes were traced by a line of rails from northern Georgia to the Potomac. The Piedmont road, now the Southern system, runs at an elevation between five hundred and one thousand feet from Manassas Junction, whence it connects with Washington, southwest through Culpeper, Orange, Charlottesville, Lynchburg, and Danville in Virginia; Greensboro, Salisbury, and Charlotte, in North Carolina; Spartanburg, Greenville, and Westminster, in South Carolina, to Atlanta, Georgia.

Piedmont railways are a feature of every map. They mark the limit set by nature to economic construction of great routes of transportation along the flanking plain. Their elevation varies with the magnitude of the mountain system which they trace, and the surface features of the plateau base which they traverse. We see the piedmont railroad of the Atlantic slope reproduced in the piedmont lines at the eastern foot of the Rockies, running from Calgary (3388 feet elevation), at the base of the mountain wall in western Alberta, southeast through western Montana, where along the sources of the Missouri River, the Yellowstone, and the Big Horn, it rises at times to an elevation of five thousand feet; thence south along the Laramie Range to Cheyenne and still at the same altitude along the eastern base of the Colorado Rockies through Denver and Pueblo to Las Vegas, whence it turns westward across the mountains by the old Santa Fe Trail to the valley of the Rio Grande, to follow this stream southward to El Paso.


Only the long, gradual upward slope of the Great Plains, which places the foot of the Rockies at a considerable elevation, renders possible railroads of such length at such an altitude. The steep grade of the Alps and the Himalayas from the Po and Ganges respectively eliminates the piedmont plain as a physical feature; hence the piedmont railways run along at a very low altitude. In the case of northern Italy, the deep reentrant valleys of the Italian lakes conspire with the slope to force the railroad almost down into the plain of the Po. In northern India, the piedmont railway begins at Peshawar at an altitude of only 1165 feet in the northern corner of the Punjab, falls to an altitude of 820 feet of Ludhiana — though Simla at the terminus of a branch road only about sixty miles northeast of this point lies at an elevation of 7116 feet — to 700 feet at Rampur, and to 255 feet at Gorakpur, where the Ganges begins to encroach still more upon the base of the Himalayas.

But unless a mountain system presents an almost insuperable barrier, as in the case of the Caucasus and the Himalayas, a piedmont railway, owing to the less fertile and productive character of the country which it traverses (unless valuable mines supply the motive for its early development) will in general be antedated by transmontane roads, because the over-mountain country with its different climate and products offers a better field for commerce. This was true in the United States in the case both of the Appalachians and the Rockies. Especially is this the order of development when beyond the mountains lies the sea. The purpose to reach Pacific ports pushed both the Amencan and Canadian overland roads.

Trans-Appalachian Lines.
The period from 1830 to 1860 saw six railroads constructed across the Appalachians at various points between the Mohawk Valley and northern Georgia, where the upland system dwindles away into low hills offering little obstruction to railway building (Fig. 30). The roads followed with slight variations the lines of least resistance settled upon by the old trails of Indian, trapper, and western pioneer, and the later routes of proposed canals which were constructed in whole or in prt, or were abandoned altogether as impracticable. From New York to the southern boundary of Virginia the lower altitude and dissected character of the Appalachian system afforded the first routes for railways which were economically possible; but from Virginia southward for a stretch of three hundred and fifty miles, the massive wall of the Great Smoky Mountains effectively discouraged the construction of a railway over this barrier until 1882.

Railroads in 1860.

The route which saw the only through canal system across the Appalachians saw naturally the first transmontane railroad. From the little seventeen-mile road from Albany to Schenectady as an embryo, developed the different stages of westward railroad advance along the line of the Erie Canal. Year by year the links in the chain were added — Utica and Schenectady in 1836, Syracuse and Utica in 1839, Auburn and Syracuse in 1838, Rochester and Auburn in 1841, Rochester, Lockport, and Niagara Falls in 1838. In 1843 a traveler could cross the state of New York by rail from Buffalo to Albany, but he was carried by sixteen different companies. In 1851 the Hudson River railroad completed rail connection between the Atlantic seaboard and Lake Erie.

To New York belongs the honor of having constructed also, the second railroad across the mountains. The Erie road, taking advantage of the dip in the mountains south of the Catskills, started from Piermont on the lower Hudson, taking seven years to crawl over the Highlands to Port Jervis on the Delaware, whence it pushed rapidly westward along the valley of the Susquehanna and its western tributaries, and over the second watershed to Dunkirk on Lake Erie, in 1851, nowhere reaching an elevation of eighteen hundred feet. Thus in this year, New York had two lines from the harbor of the Hudson to the western lake.

The Erie was followed closely by the Pennsylvania, and Baltimore and Ohio railroads, opened respectively in 1854 and 1853. The impracticability of a canal between the Potomac and the Ohio forced the development of the more southern road. It reached the old pioneer station of Cumberland, at the northern bend of the Potomac, as early as 1842; but from that point the discouragement to construction over the rough surface of the Allegheny Plateau and the high altitude to which it had to ascend (2620 feet) retarded its completion to Wheeling and the Ohio until January of 1853. The Pennsylvania line extended westward from Harrisburg, which since 1838 had had rail connection with Philadelphia, followed the canal route up the Juniata River to Huntingdon and Holidaysburg, passed thence over the summit of the mountains to Johnstown and down the valley of the Conemaugh River to the Allegheny, and down this stream to Pittsburgh. Difficulty of construction over the main crest of the mountains delayed the road for two years, so that through connection was not made until 1854.

With the completion of these four roads across the mountains, the competition of rail and waterways began, but at first very slowly. In 1852 the through freight east on the Erie Canal was twenty-six times that carried by the Central and Erie lines, but in 1853 it was only fifteen times greater. In one year more, the absolute decline of tonnage on the canal began to be alarming, so much was being diverted to its rivals. In Pennsylvania, the inadequacy of the canal system as a transit route over a mountainous country had long been apparent, and its early (1857) purchase by the railroad company eliminated the last vestige of competition it might have offered.

Erie Canal.

In the meantime, the opportunity for a railroad around the southern extremity of the Appalachians along the route known to the early Cherokee traders was being exploited, and a chain of many links from Savannah and Charleston through Atlanta and Chattanooga, the two “gate” cities, to river navigation at Nashville was completed in 1854, while another line from Chattanooga through Stevenson, Alabama, to Memphis opened connection with the Mississippi in 1858. The lack of river communication along this east and west route, the impracticability of Gallatin’s proposed canal, the adaptation of the face of the country to railway building, and the need of access from the southern states of the Mississippi Basin to the Atlantic seaboard, all combined to push the construction of this southern line.

Chattanooga had now a central position on a great route east and west, and in its rear lay the Appalachian Valley, affording a natural route of communication with the northeast. Hence we find that the next transmontane line, though starting in Virginia, had Chattanooga for its objective. From its seaboard terminus, Norfolk, at the entrance of Chesapeake Bay, it ran westward along the low watershed between the James and Roanoke rivers to Lynchburg, which it reached in 1854. Thence it passed through the Blue Ridge by the water-gap of the James, turned southward up the Valley of Virginia by the path of the old Wilderness Road to Bristol on the upper Holston, in 1857, and down the valley of East Tennessee to Knoxville and Chattanooga by 1858.

Though so late in being constructed, its value as a link in the great through road between New Orleans and the eastern cities was soon appreciated. Subsequently it became a main trunk line from which one branch turned off eastward at Morristown up the French Broad River to Paint Rock, on the western slope of the Great Smoky Mountains, in 1861, and there in 1882 formed a junction with a line which came up from Salisbury on the eastern piedmont railroad and crossed this forbidding range by way of Swannanoa Gap and the upper valley of the French Broad. Another branch from the Tennessee Valley railroad turned westward to Cumberland Gap, and there united in 1890 with another line passing down to central Kentucky; and a third one turned westward a little farther north at the elbow of the New River in western Virginia, passed down that stream for about thirty miles, and over the watershed to the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy by the old war-trail of the marauding Shawnees, and continued down that river to the Ohio and the railroads traversing its banks.


In the meantime, however, before these branch roads from the Great Valley thoroughfare had multiplied the rail routes over the Appalachians, another road was planning to utilize the pioneer trail from the western sources of the James over the mountains to the Greenbrier branch of the Kanawha. As early as 1857, a road passing along the head streams of the Shenandoah and the James had reached the base of the main Allegheny range at Covington. The extension to navigation at Huntington on the Ohio was undertaken entirely by the state of Virginia, which still cherished its old dream of being a great transit region, a dream which the river paths of the Virginia Mountains had awakened in the minds of Washington and Jefferson. The difficulty of construction down the New River cañon and the interruption of the Civil War retarded the construction of the work until 1873.

Three out of the four earliest trans-Appalachian railroads, as we have seen, followed the routes of finished or unfinished canals; and even after reaching the interior basin of the country, the railroads continued to search out the domain of the waterway as if to challenge its competition. The geographical facts are these. The waterways, whether lake or canal, traced the line of least elevation and hence least resistance. The westward trend of the Great Lakes brought the terminus of the water route near to the natural concentrating channel of the Mississippi River, and the western canals united the Lakes with the Ohio.

Both lakes and canals, Ohio and Mississippi, were dotted with the largest cities of the western country. Commerce had been started in its course along these waterways. The limitation of canal navigation, due to shallow draft vessels and the short open season in these northern latitudes, soon proved a serious stumbling-block as western resources were developed and commerce grew. The lines of traffic which the canals had created, the railroads fell heir to; the transmontane roads did not begin to come into their full heritage, however, until railways began to spread over the interior basin between the Ohio and the Lakes, and the produce of western farms could be loaded first into freight cars instead of canal-boats. Thus, the strategy of transportation patronage lay in the question of reloading. When railroads by their wide expansion had gained this point, by their rapidity and reliability, they surpassed their rival. Hence we find the western trunk lines seeking the path of the waterways.

Development of Interior Systems.
Just as Ohio was the first western state to follow the example of New York in canal building, so now she was the first to imitate her in the construction of railroads. Here again geographical location on the constricted area between free navigation on the Ohio and the Great Lakes was a potent factor in transportation development. It made a short passway for the steel arteries of commerce as before for water channels. The Mad River railroad, begun in 1832, was opened in 1848 between Sandusky on Lake Erie and Dayton, a city which already had canal communication with the Lake through Toledo. This road in connection with a previously (1846) completed line, the Little Miami between Springfield and Cincinnati, which was also in canal communication with Toledo, formed the first through line from the Ohio to Lake Erie. A second line in operation in 1851 connected Columbus with Cleveland, and a third opened communication between Cleveland and Pittsburgh in 1852.

Thus Ohio had three railroads across the state from north to south when the New York trans-Appalachian lines began to push westward along the southern rim of Lake Erie, from Buffalo to Erie, Pennsylvania, in February, 1852, from Erie to Cleveland later in the same year, and from Cleveland to Toledo in January, 1853. This was the last link in the line between New York and Chicago, because the approximation of the heads of Lakes Erie and Michigan had some years before suggested the plan of a railway short cut across the base of the Michigan peninsula. This line, first projected to run from Monroe just north of Toledo over to New Buffalo (a suggestive name) on Lake Michigan opposite Chicago, was pushed half of the distance to Hillsdale in 1843; but when reorganized under a new company was diverted to Chicago and the road from lake to lake opened in 1852 with the eastern terminus at Toledo.


No sooner had the New York roads connection with the lines of the Lakes and the Ohio Basin, than an enormous increase of their commerce ensued. To this the state of Ohio contributed a large measure. In spite of slack water navigation on its canals, traffic had previously followed its drainage streams, owing chiefly to the different areas of production in the state. About two thirds of the wheat had sought an outlet by the Lakes and the Erie Canal; corn, which was grown largely in the southern part of the state, and all other provisions went out by the Ohio River to New Orleans, whence they were transported to the Atlantic seaboard.

Of the exports of beef from Cincinnati in 1851, the year prior to the through railway communication with the East, 97 per cent went down the river and only 2 per cent northward to the Lake. Of the Indian corn, the river traffic got 96 per cent and the Lake 3 per cent; of the flour, the former got 97 per cent and the latter 1 per cent. Lard, pork, and bacon sought these outlets in about the same proportion.

A small quantity of all these articles supplied the demand in the growing city of Pittsburgh. The heavy movement of provisions to the South was due in part to the fact that animals could not be slaughtered until cold weather had set in, closing navigation on the canals. Hence the provision trade was readily diverted to the railroads, and with the growing demand in the eastern markets, attending increase of population and of industrial development, it soon came to constitute an important part of the through traffic.

When the Pennsylvania road completed its connection with Pittsburgh, its rail communication with Cleveland was already established. The next year after the Baltimore and Ohio came into Wheeling, a line was opened from Bellaire in Ohio, nearly opposite Wheeling, westward to Columbus; and another road, branching off northwestward from this at Newark, established communication with Sandusky and the Shore line in 1856. Thus the region of the Ohio and the Lakes was rapidly drawn into the sphere of influence of the four eastern roads.


But beyond lay the Mississippi, and already the traffic of this great waterway was being tapped by the Chicago and Rock Island railroad, which was completed in 1854. Prior to this time, the canals from Lake Michigan had exerted little influence in directing the Mississippi trade eastward to the Lake route. All the produce along its western tributaries and most of that from its eastern bank went down the river to New Orleans.

The current of the Illinois River carried southward most of the products of central Illinois, and only those from the northern part of the state sought the Lake outlet. But from this time, the stream of traffic was deflected at right angles toward the eastern markets. Between 1855 and 1856, Chicago became the center of roads radiating to the Mississippi — to Galena, Alton, Burlington, Quincy, and the mouth of the Ohio. In 1858, the Milwaukee and La Crosse road struck the Mississippi higher up. The next step was to the Missouri, from Hannibal to St. Joseph through northern Missouri, in 1859, and an extension of the Galena line through Iowa to Councii Bluffs in 1866.

The intense localization of our industrial and urban development in the northeastern part of the United States, the concentration here of our great commercial ports, and the distribution of our chief foreign markets across the Atlantic yet farther east in Europe, were the main factors in determining the early east-and-west direction of our principal railroads (Fig. 31).

When the Mississippi Valley was finally opened to the eastern lines, railroad building progressed rapidly, finding in its gentle slopes and low watersheds slight obstacles to construction. The bridging of its wide streams was one of the most serious problems. We notice today certain large features of railroad distribution in the United States. The most striking of these is the coincidence of the area of intensest urban development with that of the greatest railroad development. Here the network of steel rails is thickest. It tells the story of incoming raw materials and of outgoing finished commodities, of many mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, houses to build, and of many factories to be supplied with fuel.

We notice particularly how all the great lines from the Northwest have to turn the corner sharply at Chicago, owing to the deep indenting inlet of Lake Michigan, and thus produce a congestion of railroads which has been the making of that city.

We next observe a thinning of this steel network in the agricultural South and the arid West; the occurrence of certain “vacant spots” where the mesh becomes still wider, spots already familiar as areas of sparse population, in the swamp region of southern Florida, in the lumber region of northern Maine and Minnesota, in the barren Ozark Mountains of Missouri and Arkansas, and in the rough upland of the Cumberland Plateau in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The few railroads which enter the latter region, with only one exception, strike across the axis of the Appalachians, indicating their primary character as transit lines. The western base of this mountain system, owing to the irregular limit of the Allegheny and Cumberland plateaus, has developed no well-defined piedmont railroad such as outlines the eastern foot of the Appalachians.

We notice lastly, beyond the eastern margin of the arid belt, a marked predominance of east-and-west roads and a sudden decrease, almost a cessation of railroads running north and south. West of this limit we find few such roads. The outstanding are three: the Cordilleran piedmont already mentioned; a second line running south from Helena and Butte, Montana, diagonally across the axis of the Rocky Mountains and down the head stream of Snake River to Pocatello, whence along the western base of the Wasatch range to southwestern Utah, it forms the piedmont road of this rim of the Great Basin; the Pacific Valley line running from Puget Sound along the old trails from the Nisqually to the Columbia and from the Willamette to San Francisco Bay, and on up the San Joaquin Valley to southern California.

The Transcontinental Roads.
Across the belt of the Great Plains many lines strike out boldly for the Rocky Mountains, following sometimes the banks of the parallel drainage streams, more often seeking the solid ground of the watersheds between. Only seven pass the mountain barrier and reach the Pacific; but in view of the youth of the country, its arid and mountainous character, and the sparsity of its population, this number speaks eloquently for the power of attraction of two opposite coasts. Its situation between two oceans makes of the United States a great transit land; hence the amazing development of the transcontinental lines.

The alternative of this overland transportation from New York to San Francisco, a distance of three thousand miles, until the Panama Canal was completed, meant a voyage over four times as long around the Horn. The wide separation of the Baltic and Pacific coasts of Russia, with the choice of a long voyage through arctic or through tropical seas, has forced upon the Muscovite the construction of the great Siberian Railroad. A similar situation in Canada called forth its first overland road. All these great lines had a political as well as a commercial motive; the political was immediate, however, and the commercial was largely a matter of faith in the future.

The Russian line was purely a government undertaking; the first in Canada began as a government project, but later was released to a subsidized syndicate; but in the United States political urgency dictated a gigantic system of land grants and subsidies to the transcontinental roads, which, owing to the character of the country which they traversed, were most expensive in construction and along certain stretches could probably never count upon the support of local traffic.*

* In this way the government has granted more than eight per cent of its continental area — 245,000 square miles — to aid railway construction. Typical of the early generosity was the Northern Pacific grant, consisting of a band forty miles wide across Minnesota and eighty miles wide across North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington.

These overland railroads, for a great part of their way, keep to the old California, Oregon, Santa Fe, and Gila River trails. The more northern ones follow, for shorter distances, the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and other early explorers. But the engineer straightens the routes which Nature made and avoids detours which were the traders’ only paths.

The zonal distribution of these transcontinental roads is interesting. We find three northern lines starting from the western Great Lakes. In the stretch from the Red River of the North to Puget Sound, a number of cross-lines connect them with the Canadian railways of the prairie provinces and British Columbia, arteries through which so much rich American blood has been poured into the infant giant of the Far North. The main lines are dotted every few hundred miles with railroad plexus, all lying in so narrow a belt as to stress the directness of the connection between eastern and western termini which is permitted by the far-flung plains spanning the distance between the Great Lakes and the Rockies.


The same phenomenon is observed in the other overland routes. The next one to the south takes its course almost along the forty-second parallel from Chicago through Council Bluffs, Omaha, Cheyenne, and Ogden to the northern end of Great Salt Lake; thence it deviates from its adopted path, sending one branch off along the old Oregon Trail to the Columbia and Portland, another southwest by the California Trail to San Francisco Bay. A third artery between the Pacific and the Salt Lake oasis follows approximately the Old Spanish Trail southwest across the Mohave Desert and through Cajon Pass to Los Angeles. Thus Salt Lake City has become preeminently the railroad center of the Great Basin. In addition it is entered from the east by the fifth trans-Rocky railroad, which, adhering closely to the thirty-ninth parallel, moves straight across the country from St. Louis through Kansas City, Pueblo, Salida, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction to the Green River at the town of Greenriver, and thence turns sharply northward to join the Wasatch piedmont road at Utah Lake.

The destiny of the Salt Lake oasis as a concentrating point is assured, because, for a stretch of almost two hundred miles across northwestern Arizona the cañon of the Colorado River acts as a barrier to deflect overland railroads either northward towards Salt Lake or southward below the outlet of this mighty trench. Hence we find the next overland route leading directly west along the thirty-fifth parallel from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Mojave, California, where it unites with the Pacific Valley line. For a time this Santa Fe system was the only road across the great western highlands to make a distinct bend, either north to Pueblo or south to El Paso, to establish its eastern connections. The desolate expanse of the Llano Estacado of northwestern Texas, flanked on the west by the barren mesa-dotted high-lands of eastern New Mexico and on the east by the undeveloped area of the Indian Territory, proved an uninviting field for railroad enterprise.

Farther south, the Gila River depression, the gap in the mountain wall at El Paso, the grass highlands of central Texas, and direct connection with the earlier roads eastward from the Mississippi Valley around the southern end of the Appalachians, have determined the line of the remaining transcontinental route. This also adheres closely to one parallel, the thirty-third, near which it leaves the Mississippi River and passes through Dallas and Fort Worth in Texas; but then it drops southward one degree for the mountain gap at El Paso and the easy route over the Sierra Madre Plateau, followed by Cooke’s wagon-trains in 1846. It strikes the thirty-third parallel again on the Gila River, and this line it keeps to southern California, where mountains deflect it north to Los Angeles and bar it from San Diego, its natural Pacific terminus.


The striking facts in these overland railroads are their distribution in northern, central, and southern groups; the directness of the lines of connection from east to west; the development of an interior concentrating point in the Salt Lake oasis and of two marginal ones on the Pacific. One of these is located near the Canada boundary about Puget Sound, which receives three of the American transcontinental roads and is in close communication with the Canadian roads where they issue from the mountains at the mouth of Fraser River; and the other is near the Mexican frontier at Los Angeles, which to its two overland railroads has added two lines from the interior deserts of the Great Basin and another pair giving it coastal and valley communication with San Francisco and the north. To San Francisco remains always the advantage of its central location and its direct line of communication with the northern Atlantic seaboard.

The Pacific coast is remarkable for the fairly even distribution of its active ports along all its great length — Seattle and Tacoma at about 47° 30’ N.L., Portland at 45° 30’, San Francisco at 37° 45’ and San Pedro, the harbor of Los Angeles, at 33° 45’. In this, it presents a striking contrast to the Atlantic coast, which has all of its important seaboard points crowded together between Boston (42° 20’ N.L.) and Norfolk (36° 50’ N.L.), a stretch of five and a half degrees of latitude as opposed to nearly fourteen degrees between extreme ports on the Pacific. The explanation of this phenomenon is to be sought in the various geographic influences already discussed, which have determined economic development and railroad distribution in the whole northeastern section of the United States.

< Back to Top of Page