The Railroad | United States (late-1800s)

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The railroad retrieved from

By Sonia Holsen

The Anthropocene is an epoch marked and characterized by human impact on the geologic system. Yet the question of what humans and which groups made the impact, and by what means they did so, is what is yet to be defined and is the topic of much debate. What helps us to identify and define “who” is by first deciding “what.” What objects had the most impact on humans with their bare hands cannot change the global geologic system if they do not have the tools to do so. Tools are what have set humans apart from all other species and what has given us the ability to create things that are bigger than ourselves. Tools are technology and with growing nations and global domination by humans, technology has been a partner and a catalyst to advancement. For this reason, it is essential to study the tools and the technology that has been the most impactful. One of the tools that has stretched across the globe, connects the most distant of lands, is used by a large portion of the human race, and has had a profound impact on the global economy, our perceptions of space and time, and human history and social relations as we know it is the railroad.


This essay will focus specifically on the railroad system’s significance in the United States during the late 19th century, approximately from 1860-1890. Railroads were what captured the west for the United States, thus fulfilling the concept of Manifest Destiny, a term used to justify the expansion of the US to the west coast as inevitable. But it was cheap labor in a landscape where immigrants, minorities, and lower class white men fueled the desperate labor force, cheap energy that was characteristic of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of fossil fuels in the world, and finally the capitalist economy that fueled this growth and expansion for the gain of a more powerful corporate nation and at the cost of lives, land, and nature (Rail Transportation). The way trains themselves functioned was incredibly harmful on the environment as they ran primarily on the burning of coal, one of earth’s most harmful and unsustainable fossil fuels(Rail Transportation). Due to these aspects, the railroad greatly represents the Anthropocene. It is an object that reflects how imperialism along with the romanticism of the man-nature relationship has fueled the capitalocene agenda that cheapens lives, nature, money, care, energy, labor, and food, in order to achieve efficiency in profit and individual power gains.

To begin, the transcontinental railroads in America were built primarily in the years after the civil war, around 1860. Both the North and the South wanted railroads connecting them to the West for various reasons. Southerners saw the transcontinental railroad as a means by which they could control and expand influence on western trade (Deverell, 2018). They also wanted to use the railroads to expand slavery into the Western Territories which had not yet been annexed into the nation and whose slavery laws were undecided(Deverell, 2018). Southerners thought if they had trains, they could send slaves into Western landscapes and ship the products back east to be traded in the southern markets (Deverell, 2018). The North simply viewed it as a way to incorporate new markets and expand the economy.

This expansion changed the way Americans thought about land and space. As access to land and resources in the West was made newly available to the economy and society of America, land suddenly became a right, of sorts, for Americans. This is portrayed in a map of the western states and territories, created by Gaylord Watson in 1869, which depicts a vision of a new America, reaching from coast to coast, with the long dark lines representing the transcontinental railroads standing out on the page (Watson, 1869). The map outlines Indian territories, as well as land that had not yet been annexed by the federal government, as all being a part of the United States and decreed such due to the presence and claim designated by railroads (Watson, 1869). As depicted only partly by this map, these railroads ran through many areas that were home to various Native American tribes (Watson, 1869). During the construction of the railroads, these Native Americans’ lands were destroyed and disrupted, as the federal government as well, as wealthy railroad companies, disrespected treaties and harmed the lifestyles of the indigenous peoples living there. This is an important component of the Anthropocene: rooted in European history, American imperialism and hunger for dominance has led to the displacement, death, and exploitation of indigenous peoples. The federal government cheapened the land that belonged to the Native Americans and gave it to the first railroad companies to move in. This land was then turned over and altered, harming the ecosystems that had prevailed there.  

The stealing of land from Native Americans was not the only way in which land and nature was exploited. The railroads gave Americans a sense of ownership over all that existed on this new land they had assumed. This sense, engrained by ideals of manifest destiny, led to an attitude of disrespect and ignorance for the fragile balance of life and the ecosystems inherent to the land. A sketch done by Frank Leslie entitled “Shall the Buffalo Go?–Slaughtered for a Pastime,” made in 1883,  illustrates a large group of men, standing atop, and hanging out the windows of, a locomotive puffing through the grain grass plains of the wild west, all holding large guns firing away at a giant herd of buffalo grazing in the tall grasses surrounding the tracks (Leslie, 1883). The title of this work implies that the buffalo were not hunted for their meat or their pelts, but rather left dead where they had fallen (Leslie, 1883). This sketch represents an idea of man’s domination over nature, and this domination proved through its destruction, for the sole reason of ‘because we can.’ Technology has primarily had the connotation of something completely man-made, not found anywhere in nature. Thus much of technology has been competing with nature: to control it, to destroy it, to understand it, etc. Yet it has been made at the cost of nature; it’s most valuable resources are used up to create the biggest and most powerful tools known to man. Thus as humans advance and create newer and more innovative technologies, the geologic system has suffered the consequence.

Yet, it was not just the earth that suffered at the hands of technology and its creation, it was the laborers and their families that worked to build them that suffered as well, which is where cheap lives and cheap labor come into play. During the building of the transcontinental railroads, the federal government would give subsidies and funding to whatever railroad company claimed the project and began construction first (Deverell, 2018). Therefore, a race between wealthy railroad companies began. Whoever could build the fastest would get the money and could begin profiting. This led to companies harboring dangerous conditions for workers to whom they paid very low wages (Deverell, 2018). After the civil war, there was a race for work amongst lower class white Americans, immigrants, and African Americans. Many sought the railroads as an opportunity. But the railroad companies took advantage of the suffering economy after the war and the need for jobs, and exploited their laborers, who wouldn’t have even had access to the use of railroads at the beginning, as railcars were reserved for upper class white Americans, as another way to separate social groups by class and race. For example, a picture taken by Alfred A. Hart in 1868 captures a campsite and train at the foot of the mountains where a group of tents sit perched along with a company of horses, mules, and wagons (Hart, 1868). Another picture taken by Alfred A. Hart in 1869 shows a Chinese camp working on the Central Pacific Railroad (Hart, 1869). Chinese immigrants, who at the time were facing discrimination from Americans who saw them as competition in the labor force, faced dangerous and severe working conditions for low compensation, as their labor, along with that of other workers of the railroads, was cheapened (Deverell, 2018).

The cheapening of land, nature, and labor was not essential to expanding the country west and incorporating new markets into the national whole. Cheapening was done for the purpose of increased profits for large corporations trying to gain more power for themselves in a competition based capitalist economy. Railroads themselves had an economically advantageous aspect crucial to their creation in America. A study done by Dave Donaldson and Richard Hornbeck titled, “Railroads and Economic Growth: A ‘Market Access’ Approach,” explains the relationship between the building of railroads across America and the increase in agricultural land values (Donaldson, 2016). They found that if all railroads built between the years of 1860-1890 had been removed in 1890, the total value of US agricultural land would have decreased by 60.2% and would have generated a net economic loss equivalent to a 3.2% decrease in GNP or Gross National Production (Donaldson, 2016). This concept is supported in William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis in which he discussed the growth of Chicago as America’s western frontier (Cronon, 1991). Cronon goes on to credit railroads being built from Chicago’s hinterlands into the city, connecting those markets and stimulating the region’s economy (Cronon, 1991). Farmers in the surrounding rural lands of Chicago were able to begin selling their products within the city by shipping them by train (Cronon, 1991). They could then have the tools they needed to streamline production sent back out to them (Cronon, 1991). This demonstrates how railroads expanded and extended economic markets allowing rural and urban areas to interact and exchange resources, leading to the growth of metropolitan cities that depended on the resources and products of surrounding markets. And so, as the economy grew, demand grew, and production had to increase at a quicker rate which meant the streamlining of production and the depletion of more and more of the earth’s resources.

In conclusion, the railroads that incorporated the Great West into the United states in the second half of the 19th century, represent man’s desire to control and dominate nature in a way that is expressed through nature’s destruction. Railroads were built on a capitalist agenda to stimulate the national economy through private enterprises, such as the railroad companies, competing for government subsidies and then producing in the quickest and cheapest way possible. By doing this builders and supporters of the railroads damaged lands that belonged to indigenous peoples, destroyed wildlife that supported a larger ecosystem, and exploited the labor of immigrants and Americans trying to recover from the civil war. This created a deeply rooted and engrained cyclical system that relied on the cheapening of resources in a capitalist economy and ultimately the permanent alteration of the geologic system: a process that represents the Anthropocene.


Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. William Cronon, 1991.

Donaldson, Dave, and Richard Hornbeck. “Railroads and American Economic Growth: A ‘Market Access’ Approach .” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 26 Feb. 2016.

Deverell, William, and Anne Farrar Hyde. Shaped by the West: A History of North America from 1850. Vol. 2, University of California Press, 2018.

Hart, Alfred A. Chinese Camp, Central Pacific Railroad. 1869.

Hart, Alfred A. End of the Track. Near Humboldt River Canyon, Nevada. 1868.

Leslie, Frank. Shall the Buffalo Go?–Slaughtered for a Pastime. May 1883.

“Rail Transportation.” The Environmental Literacy Council,  

Watson, Gaylord. Watson’s New Map of the Western States, Territories, Mexico, and Central America. 1869.