Why a railroad?

James Polk

James K. Polk

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee rivers drained the American West. Even after James K. Polk painted the continent red, white, and blue all the way to the Pacific those vast, empty lands might as well rest across a great sea. Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin represented the far western frontier beyond which lions, dragons, or at the very least hostile Indians, stood against the white man’s destiny. That first band of states may, given the turmoil over the future of the Mexican Cession that nearly broke the Union and left both sections staring daggers at each other, have remained the final frontier of white America for years longer.

But California had gold and so many a young man seeking his fortune rushed to the land where free money lay on the ground, begging for an owner. That population boom made California a state geographically part of North America but almost an island to itself. One could take the dangerous, laborious overland journey from the Mississippi valley to the gold. But the gold could not last forever and delay meant someone else could come and take the gold Forty-Niners had in their dreams before it could reach their pockets. The smart pioneer did not hitch up a wagon and go West. He took passage on a ship from New York, New Orleans, or some other American port to the isthmus of Panama, to Nicaragua, or to the isthmus of Tehuantepec. That last took one less out of the way, but required a longer overland journey. Panama required the largest detour short of Cape Horn. Nicaragua, with Cornelius Vanderbilt’s service in place, gave a happy medium where the overland journey could come down to all of twelve miles.

Going the long, but fast way made good sense, but it also left the West Coast largely cut off from the rest of the nation and communication with it subject to the whims of a series of unstable, questionable, and simply foreign powers. A railroad on American soil would simultaneously open the floodgates to white settlement of the West by reducing the time and cost to get there, consolidate American control over those vast spaces, and bring them securely into communication with the rest of the country without requiring any concessions to a foreign power or any additional territorial expansion to further strain the already-ragged Union.

But how could the nation do that? Southern, most especially Southeastern, opposition had long foiled any hopes of an ambitious national infrastructure program. Individual states sold bonds to fund canals and subsidize railroads. Those networks, in the North, linked Chicago to the East Coast and reduced the importance of New Orleans to Midwestern commerce. But the national government barely got together a few short, by modern standards, trunk roads and the resources necessary to link the Mississippi and the Pacific exceed the means, reach, and power of any state.

Americans sometimes have a gift for ignoring such practical troubles, largely to our despair. The prospect of money, of course, helps ease those worries. For towns in the Midwest and out in the West, ending up on the railroad would mean a huge economic boom. The same prospects fueled rounds of fevered land speculation. The land one bought today one could sell to the railroad at a massive profit. If one didn’t want to sell, one could set up businesses along the way to service the assets which would flow over the rails or provide services to those who came with them. The transcontinental railroad would increase the value of any real estate nearby.

The railroad would in a single stroke consolidate the great American continental empire and make many of its citizens rich. It could even dampen the ardor of the filibusters, redirecting expansionist energies to internal campaigns against Indians and wilderness instead of foreign countries. It would bring government and manifest destiny boosters together instead of setting some of them at loggerheads. It offered something to everybody.

Provided, of course, the nation could find some way to make it happen and agree on how and where. Those practical troubles would destroy the final sectional settlement just four years after it came into force.

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