transcontinental railroad a railroad that crosses a continent (trans means “across”)
subsidy money or other things of value (such as land) that a government contributes to an enterprise
laid. Later, the railroads could sell this land to settlers. The government also loaned the two companies more than $60 million.
The Pacific Railroad Act kicked off the greatest period of railroad construction in the nation’s history. By 1900, the railroads had laid 170,000 miles of track, much of it in the West. “Rail barons” like the Central Pacific’s Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker made vast fortunes.
Railroads opened the West to a flood of new settlers. The newcomers included farmers and ranchers, prospectors and preachers, schemers and dreamers, and more than a few crooks. But most were ordinary folk who dreamed of a new start. For them, the West was a place where a lot of hard work and a little luck could make their dreams come true.
24.4 The Railroad Builders
The plan for building a transcontinental railroad looked simple enough on paper. The Union Pacific would start in Nebraska and build tracks westward across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, the Central Pacific would start in California and lay tracks eastward across the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Great Basin. The two lines would meet somewhere in between the starting points. The company that laid the most track would get more land, more loans, and more profits.
Laying track was hard work. First the surveyors studied the land and chose the route for the tracks. They were followed by the graders, who prepared the land. Armed with picks and shovels, the graders cut through hills and filled up valleys to make the route as level as possible.
Next came the tracklayers. They put down wooden ties and hauled in heavy iron rails. One rail weighed 700 pounds, and there were 400 rails in each mile of track. Last came the spikers. The spikers nailed the rails to the ties with spikes—ten spikes per rail, three hammer blows for every spike.
The Union Pacific Builds West The Union Pacific got off to a slow start. Then, in 1866, a former Civil War general named Grenville Dodge took charge of construction. Dodge had built railroads before the war, and, as a military officer, he knew how to lead men. Now he commanded an army of 10,000 workers. Most of them were Irish immigrants who were fleeing the slums of eastern cities. They were joined by other immigrants, ex-soldiers, Mexicans, and freed slaves. All were young men who needed jobs and craved adventure. Most of all, they hoped to start new lives in the open spaces of the West.
Chinese laborers were recruited to do the backbreaking work required to lay rails across the Sierra Nevada mountains. They were paid one dollar a day for their labor.
By 1867, Dodge’s crews were laying as much as seven miles of track a day across the plains. The workers lived in tent cities that followed the tracks west. These portable towns were tough, often dangerous places. A reporter wrote, “Not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity with pockets rifled of their contents.”
For the Plains Indians, the railroad was an invasion of their homeland. They watched in anger as millions of buffalo were slaughtered, destroying their main source of food. Warriors attacked the work crews and derailed supply trains by prying up sections of track. Grenville Dodge demanded military help, and soon he had 5,000 troops guarding his crews as they inched their way west.
The Central Pacific Builds East In California, the Central Pacific Railroad faced different problems. Soon after the company began laying track, many of the workers dashed off to newly discovered silver mines in Nevada. Construction practically stopped.
In desperation, Charles Crocker, the head of construction, hired 50 Chinese workers. He doubted that the Chinese were big enough to do heavy construction. On average, they weighed just 110 pounds. But the Chinese surprised him. They could do as much work in a day as any other crew, and often more.
Crocker was so impressed that he sent agents to China to hire more Chinese workers. The agents were lucky. War and unrest had driven millions of Chinese into poverty and debt. Young men jumped at the chance of going to America to build a railroad. Most of them planned to save their money and return to China as wealthy men.
Native Americans depended heavily on the buffalo for food, shelter, and clothing. As the railroad moved west, bored passengers and hunters shot buffalo out the windows of trains. Between 1872 and 1874, nine million buffalo were killed. By 1900, there were fewer than 50 buffalo left in the United States.
More than 12,000 Chinese laborers worked for the Central Pacific. They cleared trees, shoveled dirt, blasted tunnels, and laid tracks. At least 1,000 Chinese workers lost their lives in explosions, snow slides, and other accidents. Despite these losses, the workers managed to lay up to ten miles of track in a day.
The Two Lines Meet On May 10, 1869, the two lines met at Promontory Point, Utah. A golden spike was driven in to complete the 1,800 miles of track. In time, a network of railroads would bring new settlers, encourage construction of towns and cities, and allow mail and supplies to be shipped clear across the country.
The Chinese workers, who had contributed so much to building the railroad, were not acknowledged at the celebration. Their reward for years of hard work was to lose their jobs. A few of them fulfilled their dream of returning to China. But most stayed on in America, helping to build new farms and businesses across the West.
24.5 The Miners
A second group of pioneers—the miners—dreamed of striking it rich. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 set off a great treasure hunt in the mountains and deserts of the West. By 1874, gold or silver had been found in California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico.
Boomtowns and Ghost Towns Mining in the West followed a predictable pattern. First came the discovery of gold or silver. Soon fortune seekers from around the world flocked to the site. Almost overnight, mining camps mushroomed into fast-growing settlements called boomtowns.
The discovery of gold or silver often resulted in instant “boomtowns” throughout the West. Pictured here is Leadville, Colorado, in the 1870s. After mining was finished, ghost towns quickly replaced the boomtowns.
Newspaper reporter J. Ross Browne described the birth of one such town, Gila City, in present-day Arizona:
Enterprising men hurried to the spot with barrels of whiskey and billiards tables…. Traders crowded in with wagons of pork and beans. Gamblers came with cards…. There was everything in Gila City within a few months but a church and a jail. These instant towns had no government, no law, and little order. Robbery and murder were common. Honest miners fought back by forming “vigilance committees” to control crime. The members of these committees, called vigilantes, handed out quick justice. A suspected murderer might be arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged all in the same day. If asked about their methods, the vigilantes pointed out that there were no courts or jails nearby. And no miner had time to waste guarding criminals.
When the easy-to-find gold or silver was gone, most miners moved on. Just seven years after its birth, Gila City was a ghost town. All that remained, wrote Browne, were “three chimneys and a coyote.”
Mining Changes the West In many ways, mining was destructive. It damaged the land and displaced many Native Americans. But most Americans saw mining as a source of wealth and opportunity. Some boomtowns, like Reno and Denver, survived to become prosperous cities. Mining also opened up the West’s mountains and deserts to other settlers. Some were businesspeople who invested in the heavy equipment needed to extract hard-to-find ore from western mountains. Others were farmers and ranchers. These were the people who would turn lonely territories into new western states.
Heavy machinery, used to remove gold and silver buried deep in rocks, badly damaged the land.
24.6 Ranchers and Cowboys
A third group of settlers in the West consisted of ranchers and the cowboys who tended their herds of cattle. At the end of the Civil War, millions of longhorn cattle roamed the plains of Texas. The longhorns got their name from their impressive horns, which could measure more than seven feet from tip to tip. The market for all this beef was the crowded cities of the East. Cattle worth $3 a head in Texas might be sold for $50 in New York or Chicago. The problem was how to transport the cattle to the cities. This challenge was complicated by the presence of angry Indians and stampeding buffalo herds.
The Extermination of the Buffalo The railroads made the ranchers’ task much easier. As the railroads moved onto the Great Plains, buffalo hunters followed. The hunters killed huge numbers of buffalo for their hides and bones, which were shipped by rail for sale in the East.
The Plains Indians depended on the buffalo for food. They were horrified by the slaughter. So were some other Americans. In 1874, Congress passed a bill outlawing the killing of more buffalo than could be used for food. But President Grant refused to sign the bill into law. General Philip Sheridan supported Grant’s decision. “You ought to give each hunter a medal,” he said. “Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo are exterminated [wiped out]. Then your prairies can be covered with cattle and the cowboy.”
By 1880, the buffalo had all but vanished. With their food gone, the Plains Indians had little choice but to move to reservations. The plains were now open to ranchers and their cattle.
The “Long Drive” The railroads also solved the ranchers’ transportation problem. In 1867, Joseph McCoy built a stockyard next to the railroad in Abilene, Kansas. A stockyard is a large holding pen where cattle are kept temporarily. That summer, cowboys herded a few thousand cattle from Texas to the Abilene stockyard, in what they called the “long drive.” There the cattle were loaded into boxcars and shipped east. Over the next 20 years, cowboys drove more than 5 million cattle to Abilene and other “cow towns” beside the rails.
Being a cowboy was dangerous and low-paying work. Still, life on the trail attracted many young adventurers. Most were Texans. About a third were of Mexican or African American heritage. Rarely, however, were black cowboys promoted to trail boss. Jim Perry, for example, was an expert rider, roper, and trail cook. He once said, “If it weren’t for my damned old black face, I’d have been a boss long ago.”
During the long drive, cowboys worked 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for three to four months. Much of the work was boring—except for moments of terror when a herd stampeded. By the time they reached the end of the trail, most cowboys were ready for rowdy fun, including drinking, gambling, and brawling. That made the cow towns wild, noisy, and often dangerous places.
The most notorious cow town was Dodge City in Kansas. An eastern
Cowboys, like Isom Dart (pictured below), moved out west to herd cattle. Many cowboys dreamed of getting their own herd and making their fortune in the rapidly growing cattle empire.
newspaper described it as “a wicked little town.” Between 1872 and 1878, 64 victims of gunfights were buried on the hill above the town. Later, several graves were dug up to make way for a new school. The gravediggers turned up a fine collection of skeletons, most still wearing their cowboy boots. To this day, the Dodge City cemetery is known as Boot Hill.
The End of the “Long Drive” After growing rapidly for 20 years, the cattle industry collapsed in 1887. The winter of 1886–1887 was the worst that anyone could remember. January was so cold that one cowboy described his life as “hell without the heat.” Whole herds of cattle froze to death. Ranchers called that terrible winter the “Great Die-Up.” Many of them lost everything. The survivors reduced their herds and fenced their grazing lands. They built barns and raised hay so that they could shelter and feed their animals in winter. The days of the long drive were over. Wild cow towns became civilized ranching centers. Adventuresome cowboys settled down to work as ranch hands.
The cattlemen’s glory years faded into the past. Still, they had much to be proud of. They had opened the Great Plains to settlement. And they had created an industry that remains an important part of life in the West today.
24.7 The Homesteaders
Farmers followed the ranchers onto the Great Plains. For half a century, the plains had been viewed as too dry for farming. Mapmakers labeled the area the “Great American Desert.” Then in the 1870s, a few homesteaders plowed and planted the grassland. They were lucky. These were years of plentiful rain, and their fields yielded fine crops.
The western railroads and land dealers made the most of this good luck. Maybe the plains used to be too dry for farming, they said, but not any
Dodge City, Kansas, shown above, was a wild cow town. When cowboys reached the end of the drive, they were ready for fun.
more. Some even said that rain had followed the rails west. “The increase of railroads,” wrote a Colorado journalist, “has the…effect of producing more showers.” Others gave farming the credit for the wet years, claiming that “rain follows the plow.”
The Homesteaders Arrive Rain might not follow the rails or the plow, but a rush of new settlers did. By 1900, some 500,000 homesteaders had moved onto the Great Plains. Many were farm families from the East who were lured west by the promise of free or cheap land. Some were former slaves looking for a new start in freedom. Tens of thousands of European immigrants also settled the plains. While most of them were seeking land, one group, Russian Mennonites, came looking for religious freedom.
Farming the Dry Plains The homesteaders faced huge challenges as they struggled to turn grasslands into grain fields. Rain was unreliable. Some years their crops withered under the hot prairie sun. Other years clouds of locusts, or large grasshoppers, swept across the plains, eating everything in their path. In addition, the plains had few trees, so there was little wood for homes.
Over time, the homesteaders solved these problems. Instead of using wood, they built houses out of chunks of sod (mats of soil held together by grassy roots). They used windmills to pump water from deep in the ground. They learned how to plow deeply to reach moist soil. The Mennonites introduced a type of winter wheat that thrived on the plains. With hard work and the right crop, homesteaders made the Great Plains the most productive wheat-growing region in the world.
The plains greeted newcomers with miles and miles of treeless grassland. Since lumber was expensive or unavailable, farmers built homes out of sod, or mats of soil. Sod houses proved to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Land Losses of Native Americans
1. Identify at least four interesting details on these maps.
2. Approximately what percentage of the land in the continental United States was held by Native Americans in 1850? 1865? 1880? 1990?
3. What are some of the reasons Native Americans lost so much land between 1850 and 1990?
4. How do you think Native Americans responded to this loss of land?
The flow of miners, ranchers, and farmers to the West compelled a change in federal policy toward Native Americans. Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Native Americans had been promised lands in the Great Plains in exchange for giving up their homelands in the East. By the mid-1800s, whites were pushing deep into this “Indian Territory.” A number of small wars raged as Indians resisted the tide of settlement. More and more, government officials saw Indians as standing in the way of the agricultural and industrial development of the West.
In 1867, Congress tried to separate Indians and settlers by moving the Indians onto reservations. In exchange for their land, the Native Americans were promised food, farm tools, and schools where their children would learn to “live like whites.”
The new policy was backed up by force. The U.S. Army was authorized to round up Indians and keep them on reservations.
Many Native Americans fought this effort to take away their land and change their way of life. In the 1870s, the wars on the plains would settle the issue once and for all.
Reservation Life The nomadic Plains peoples hated the idea of being penned up on a reservation. A Sioux chief named Sitting Bull spoke for many Indians when he said:
I will remain what I am until I die, a hunter, and when there are no buffalo or other game I will send my children to hunt and live on prairie mice, for when an Indian is shut in one place, his body becomes weak. Despite Sitting Bull’s words, the buffalo were disappearing, and most Plains Indians had little choice but to move to reservations. Once they did, however, the promised food often failed to arrive. Sometimes dishonest Indian agents sold it to settlers instead. Often the food was spoiled by the time it reached the Indians.
Hungry and unhappy with reservation life, many warriors left the reservations to look for game or to attack settlers. When they did, they were hunted down by army troops.
General George Crook sympathized with the Indians. “I do not wonder that when these Indians see their wives and children starving they go to war,” he wrote. “And then we are sent out to kill. It is an outrage.”
Sitting Bull’s Indian name was Tatanka Iyotaka. This Sioux chief resisted white settlement with passion and courage. Nevertheless, his leadership was not enough to stop the tide of newcomers.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn The most famous battle in this long struggle was fought near the Little Big Horn River in present-day Montana. The Battle of the Little Big Horn soon came to be known by another name—Custer’s Last Stand.
The trouble began when soldiers led by Indian fighter George Custer found gold in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. Within months, 15,000 gold-hungry whites were swarming over Sioux land. Rather than remove the miners, the government demanded that the Sioux sell the Black Hills. The Sioux refused. “I never want to leave this country,” a leader named Wolf Necklace told the government agents. “All my relatives are lying here in the ground, and when I fall to pieces I am going to fall to pieces here.”
The army was ordered to force the Indians out. In June 1876, army scouts reported that several thousand Sioux and Cheyenne were camped beside the Little Big Horn River. Custer was ordered to locate the camp and then wait for reinforcements.
Once Custer spotted the Indian camp, however, he decided to attack at once. The attack ended in disaster. Custer split up his troops, and the group that he led suddenly found itself surrounded by angry warriors.
The battle, one warrior said, lasted no longer than a hungry man needs to eat his dinner. In those few minutes, Custer and all his men—about 260 soldiers—were killed.
Angry whites called the battle a massacre. Over the next few months, the army tracked down the Sioux and Cheyenne and forced them onto reservations. Ignoring earlier treaties, Congress took the Black Hills and another 40 million acres of land away from the Sioux.
By 1887, most Native American peoples had been moved onto reservations. Never again would Indians roam freely across the West.
This artist’s depiction of Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of the Little Big Horn, shows Sioux warriors overwhelming Custer’s troops. Custer himself was killed by a gunshot to the head. The battle lasted only half an hour.
24.9 Chapter Summary
In this chapter, you read about the tensions that developed between settlers and Native Americans in the West after the Civil War. You used an illustration of a buffalo hide to record information about four groups of settlers and their impact on the West’s native peoples.
As settlers moved west, Native Americans were pushed off their lands and onto reservations. When Indians like the Nez Percé resisted, soldiers were sent to move them by force.
During the Civil War, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act aroused new interest in the West. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 opened the West to a flood of new settlers.
Much of the West was first explored by miners seeking gold and silver. The railroads helped ranchers and cowboys introduce large-scale cattle ranching to the Great Plains. Homesteaders turned the Great Plains into the most productive wheat-producing region in the world.
The wars between settlers, soldiers, and Plains Indians came to a head in the Battle of the Little Big Horn. The Indians won the battle, but soon afterward the Sioux and Cheyenne were forced onto reservations.
The settling of the West helped to make the United States one of the world’s largest and wealthiest countries. In the next chapter, you will learn how the rise of big business created new opportunities and problems for workers, immigrants, and politicians from east to west.
Settlers rush to claim land in the Oklahoma Territory in 1893.
The Rise of Industry
What do you think this man’s job is?
How do you think this woman feels about her job?
The tragedy started late in the afternoon on March 25, 1911. The quitting bell had just sounded in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Nearly 500 employees, most of them young immigrant women, headed toward the exit. It was Saturday, and they were looking forward to a day off with family and friends.
One woman sniffed the air. Something was burning! Another spotted flames leaping out of a pile of cloth scraps. Before she could react, the wooden table above the fabric was ablaze. From there the flames jumped to the paper fabric patterns hanging above the table. Flaming bits of paper and fabric whirled around the room, setting other tables on fire.
The room filled with smoke, and the air became so hot that it burst the windows. Fresh air poured into the room, sending the flames even higher. Fingers of the blaze started to scorch workers’ clothing and hair.
“I heard somebody cry, ‘Fire!’ I left everything and ran for the door,” recalled one woman. “The door was locked and immediately there was a great jam of girls before it.” She could see at once that, “If we couldn’t get out, we would all be roasted alive.”
Such factories and their dangers were a relatively new part of life in the United States. You read in Chapter 19 how the Industrial Revolution began. After the Civil War, new inventions and business methods allowed Americans to create industry on a much larger scale than ever before. Unfortunately, this industrial progress brought not only economic benefits, but also tragedies to the United States. The nation’s new mills and factories produced a wondrous assortment of goods that made life better for many. But the people who were employed in these new industries often lived and worked in the most miserable, even dangerous, conditions.
In this chapter, you will read the rest of the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. You will also find out how, by 1900, the United States became the world’s leading industrial nation.
Graphic Organizer: Illustration
You will use an illustration of factory workers to learn more about the expansion of industry and the effects of this expansion on workers.
25.2 Overview: A Nation Transformed
On March 26, 1883, Mrs. William Kissam Vanderbilt threw a party to show off her family’s new home in New York City. It wasn’t just a party, it was a grand ball—the most dazzling social event in the city’s history. And it wasn’t just any home. The Vanderbilts had built a mansion in the style of a European castle, complete with medieval furniture, tapestries, and armor.
But then, the Vanderbilts weren’t just any family. Mrs. Vanderbilt’s husband, a railroad tycoon, was the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had made a fortune in banking and shipping. The Vanderbilt clan was one of America’s wealthiest and most powerful families.
More than 1,200 of New York’s social elite flocked to Mrs. Vanderbilt’s ball, dressed in glittering costumes. Many of the guests came as kings and queens. But Mrs. Vanderbilt’s sister-in-law decided to be more modern. She came dressed as The Electric Light.
Mrs. Vanderbilt’s party reflected the way rapid industrialization was transforming American life in the decades after the Civil War. Cities like New York were booming. Entrepreneurs in banking, commerce, and industry were amassing enormous wealth. And technological marvels like electric light were changing how Americans lived and worked. But as the workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory knew, not everyone benefited from this progress.
The Growth of Big Business Families like the Vanderbilts made huge profits from the growth of big business after the Civil War. Businesses got bigger in part because of new technology and manufacturing practices. They also grew because there was more money to invest in them. Bankers and investors were happy to provide the necessary funds in hopes of earning large returns. Some of the money that fueled industrialization came from the large-scale mining of gold and silver in the West.
Government policies also contributed to the boom in big business. According to the doctrine of laissez-faire, economies worked best when governments did not meddle in them. To business tycoons and their politician allies, laissez-faire meant that government should not regulate the price or quality of goods, the working conditions of laborers, or the business practices of bankers and industrialists—even when those practices were ruthless.
But businesses were only too happy to accept the kind of “meddling” that protected and increased their wealth. Federal, state, and local governments all actively helped business through favorable laws and subsidies, such as the land grants given to railroads and farmers. Congress passed higher and higher tariffs. These made imported goods more expensive, and therefore less competitive with those produced in the United States.
The business boom fed the growth of American cities. For 100 years, Americans had been going West to seek their fortunes. In 1890, the Census Bureau said that it could no longer draw a line to show the farthest limit of
Industrialization produced a wide range of affordable consumer goods. Giant catalogs like this one offered American families everything from pots and pans to pianos.