The Railroad Revolution

A Depiction of the Replica of the Dewitt Clinton, an American-made Locomotive.

Following the Panics of 1837 and 1839, America began rapidly expanding a new innovation: the railroad. While this would seem to have brought the country together, in fact, it increased sectionalism, creating more tension between the North and the South. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 569.

Railroads would not produce a revolution in the American economy, but it would further America’s ongoing economic development. See id. at 566. From 1820 on, the American economy had expanded almost constantly, with the exception of the period of 1837 to 1842 and the Civil War, and the railroads and canals were part of that growth. See id. citing Thomas Weiss, “Economic Growth Before 1860,” in American Economic Development in Historical Perspective, ed. Thomas Weiss and Donald Schaefer (Stanford, 1994), 11-27; Richard Sylla, Jack Wilson, and Charles P. Jones, “U.S. Financial Markets and Long-Term Economic Growth,” ibid., 28-35.

The railroads accelerated growth as well, particularly related to “mining, processing, and importing of iron and steel,” and would create new jobs: “engineers, firemen, brakemen, switchmen, conductors, and roundhouse mechanics.” Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 566.

However, there is some dispute as to whether 1843 to the Civil War was in fact a period of the American economy “taking off,” or whether growth was already in place that the railroads would built off of. See id. at 565-66.

Nonetheless, Americans invested a significant amount of money in their railroads. At the time, Prussia was a major economy in Europe, and by comparison, the Prussians invested 7% of their capital into railroads while American state governments contributed 45% of “early railroad capital.” Id. at 564 citing Colleen Dunlavy, Politics and Industrialization: Early Railroads in the United States and Prussia (Princeton, 1994), 51-55.

Railroads would make shipping of food easier and cheaper, it would make travel easier, it would make labor markets more responsive, it would proliferate literature around the country, it would create tourism, and it would make timepieces a necessity with train schedules being closely watched. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 565.

While the precise impact of railroads on the American economy may be in dispute, there is no dispute that railroads, on top of the already existing infrastructure, fostered economic development in America during the 1840s and 1850s. Ordinary Americans’ lives were becoming more familiar to modern Americans, as travel was increasingly possible and the country became more traversable.

This is one of the earliest instances of investments in infrastructure reaping rewards for America. The economic development of the country hinges on a strong, resilient infrastructure. That is as true today as it was in the 1840s, and elected officials should remember this now and in future generations, as new technologies emerge and old technologies become obsolete.

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