How the Railroads built many of our small towns

July 24, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

How the railroads built many of our small towns.


In the first few centuries of our country towns were built near water transportation, along lakes rivers and coastlines.  Transport by water was simples, easy, and, other than ships and boats required fairly simple infrastructure.  The docks served to warehouse the goods coming and going through the port, or on the river quays.


It was an arduous task for many farmers, lumbermen and other industries to deliver goods and materials to the large ports.  Poor roads connecting the interior towns to the ocean ports and the river terminals, hindered the development of our country for approximately the first two centuries.


With the development and invention of steam locomotives in England in the first quarter of the 19th century gave a boost, first to mining, then to other industries, including passenger service.  Making travel easier and safer for goods and materials started the industrial revolution, and also gave a tremendous boost for passenger travel.


As the railroads built their way across the country to connect the large cities, small towns sprung up.  Many of these towns were purpose built to service the steam engines, which consumed hundreds of gallons of water, and cords of wood.  By the turn of the twentieth century the steam engines, still kings of the rails, now consumed fuel oil and coal, instead of wood, but water was always very important.  The railroads also needed service facilities for the engines and rolling stock, plus this also allowed the local farmers and industries to ship their goods to the larger markets and ports.  Business began to  boom, and more people moved to the communities, and many small towns became destinations for tourists.  More about towns that were actual tourist destinations in another article.


Since this is just a basic article about how railroads helped build small towns, I won’t detour into the seamier side of the railroad conglomerates.  I will publish another article about the business practices of build the railroads across the country.


What were many times a section station, with appropriate facilities for maintenance of the railroad, became small towns.  Railroad employees needed services, food and other goods to survive, and the region around that small town now had a way to mine, grow, and harvest products to be shipped to other places near and far.


Whether it was gold mining, or timber, railroads carried the goods.  Many a railroad company was formed for the sole purpose of transporting gold and silver out of the western mining districts.  The towns quickly grew with schools, churches, hardware and mercantile shops, along with a post office, blacksmith, and many other services and retail shops.


By the end of the 19th century the railroads in the US had reached nearly their ultimate building of their lines connecting the cities and towns across our country.  There were some declines because of recessions, and other business declines.  Some gold and silver mining districts had played out, consolidation of some of the smaller railroads removed some of the duplication of routes, and a majority of the larger communities were now connected.  


Railroads now streamlined their equipment, and their advertising.  Larger and faster steam engines were developed and built, along with refrigerated cars, and of course, safer and more reliable equipment.  The advertising by the railroads developed into a true industry, luring people to not only move to small towns in far away places, but for people to spend vacations in exotic places like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon National Parks.


The two world wars really demonstrated the effectiveness of a strong rail system crisscrossing this country to ship goods, war materials, and soldiers to the coastal ports.  It is also the wars that showed the shortcomings of the railroads in efficiently handling all of the needs of a global conflict.  


It was the wars that also hastened the decline of the passenger traffic for the railroads.  The wars developed the airplanes, making them safe and efficient transport for human passengers, delivering us even quicker to our vacation and business destinations than the railroads.  The building of the interstate highway system also added to the decline of railroad passenger traffic; and one would also have to add the improvements of the automobile over the twenty years after the end of World War II.


Since World War II we have seen many railroads form huge conglomerate rail lines. These mega-railroads no longer carry passengers, that is a quasi-government road; the railroads of today are haulers of huge unit trains for coal, and intermodal traffic, with a few mixed trains of goods.


That is a brief history of the railroads and how they helped build our country during the industrial revolution beginning in the 1820’s.  Some small towns and communities will have different influences and outcomes with railroads, but those are better covered in individual blogs about those communities.



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