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Historic Railways of America by James Provence

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Published on Nov 30, 2016

One of the greatest achievements of 19th century America was the Transcontinental railroad, which combined two railroads, the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific. The Central Pacific line began in San Francisco, but was joined with the new Union Pacific Line that originated in Omaha, Nebraska. It took an incredible amount of human laborers, mostly Irish immigrants, to complete the line that would meet at Promontory, Utaha in May of 1869. The line had to snake through mountains, which involved the dangerous task of tunnel digging and track laying in treacherous conditions. Building the infrastructure was one of the most challenging innovations faced by American industry to this day.

New railroads developed quickly after those first lines, which most came from the UK. In 1830, the South Carolina Cana and Rail-Road Company allowed trade to expand greatly from within the state. Steam locomotion became the staple product of New York industry, and was nicknamed “the Best Friend of Charleston” for its immense contributions. A year later, the Mohawk & Hudson railroad cut the meandering 40-mile trip through the Erie Canal to a mere 17 miles. An astonishing feat for the time.

Those first railroads were successful, but financing new ones was quite difficult. Existing turnpike operators, canal companies and other businesses that were gaining financially from existing infrastructure vehemently opposed expansion. As a result, opposition led to bitter political battles that stretched out over decades and across state lines. Eventually, taverns and innkeepers would play a key role in helping to develop the lines. New transportation opportunities meant new business. Sometimes, these conflicts turned violent, but soon everyone saw the economic benefits of laying down new track. Before too long, railroads were a thriving industry in and of themselves.

In addition to being a volunteer docent for the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento, James Provence is also an avid history reader and railroad enthusiast.

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