What were the most revolutionary social and economic developments of the last quarter of the nineteenth century?
Railroads were probably the most significant element in American economic development in the
last quarter of the nineteenth century. [ With high fixed costs, railroads needed to carry as much
traffic as possible in order to net a profit, so they constructed feeder lines to draw business to the
main “trunk” lines. Among the first railroads was Cornelius Vanderbilt’s New York Central,
ultimately operated between New York City and the principal midwestern cities. Thomas
Scott’s Pennsylvania Railroad also linked Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to several midwestern
cities. The Baltimore and Ohio railroad also gained access to Chicago, which became the
nation’s railroad hub. In the Southwest, Jay Gould consolidated the Kansas Pacific, Union
Pacific, and Missouri Pacific. In the Northwest, Henry Villard and James J. Hill built their
respective Northern Pacific and Great Northern. Northern capitalists controlled most trunk lines
in the South.
Railroads charged what the market would bear, more for manufactured goods and less for bulky
products like wheat or coal. The railroads stimulated the economy, particularly in rural areas
with undeveloped resources. Technological advances in railroading such as the air brake, steel
track, and Pullman sleeping car also accelerated economic development. To speed the settlement
of new regions, the land-grant railroads sold land cheaply and on easy terms. They offered
reduced rates to travelers interested in buying farms.
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