My grandfather immigrated from Frederikshavn, Denmark and arrived in New York Harbor on the Amerika on June 12, 1893–73 years to the day before the birth of our eldest son. The ship records indicate that he was born “about 1867” although family documents record his birth as December 15, 1869.
After the sailing ship deposited him and his wife in New York and they caught their breath, they got on a train and headed west to Nebraska where he worked as a farm hand for two years, putting cash together to be able to rent land. Then they rented Nebraska farmland for ten years before heading north to Montana by train, my Dad and his brothers riding in the passenger car with Grandma while Grandpa rode in the immigrant car with the livestock and the farm machinery–now prepared to buy their own land.
Trains and tracks crisscrossed the nation. By 1910 there were 240,000 miles of railroad in the United States. How? Who? What had put the trains in the deserts of the southwest, past the great rivers of the upper Midwest and the Great Lakes, across the prairies of The Great American Desert and clear on out to the Pacific Ocean?
It’s quite a story. Involves the federal government. Lots of money. Was a mission assignment for General George Custer. Plenty of skull-duggery. Bankruptcies. Massacres. Hundreds of thousands of good people. And all those trains accomplished some pretty amazing things.
The first half of the 19th century was full of national development such as road construction and canals; in other words, the stuff of infrastructure as they knew it. But the reality of what the west was like meant that canals weren’t that useful and the roads just couldn’t be built fast enough.
Consider the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 and 1805, the Civil War from 1861-1865–there was a whole lot going on. And, just as a historical marker, it’s interesting to know that Abraham Lincoln was a railroad attorney long before he was President or had to think about managing the Civil War. The Kansas-Nebraska act of 1854 which he debated with Stephen Douglas was considered “a necessary prelude to settlement and railroad development.” The U. S. Constitution: A Reader, Hillsdale College
Once the Louisiana Purchase was in hand, there was a whole lot of surveying for a young nation to do if settlement was to proceed as quickly as the federal government wanted it to. Then the building of the railroads answered the demand that they make the actual settlement happen faster.
…railroad construction became interwoven with land sales, which provided much of the capital needed to finance future undertakings. Heavy advertising by the railroads in the United States and Western Europe encouraged land sales. Both immigration and westward migration were thus accelerated by railroad development.
With the passage of the Pacific Railway Bill during the Civil War, the Union Pacific Railway Company and Central Pacific were given millions of acres of land to complete a railroad all the way to the Pacific Ocean, one company starting at the West Coast and the other farther east. Both lines met at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1859…
That major mid-country effort doesn’t take into account the Great Northern Railroad that I was familiar with which began at St. Paul, Minnesota in 1870 and pushed through to Everett, Washington by 1893.
Now when I first investigated the business of Grandpa and Grandma taking the train north from Nebraska to Montana I was puzzled, because over all the years of family roots in eastern Montana and some knowledge of history of the Dakotas, no north-south railroad was ever mentioned. All of the railbeds and all of the services ran east and west, whether commercial trains (hauling oil, grain, lumber, cattle or mail) or passenger trains on the Great Northern line serving all points from St. Paul to Seattle. Smaller local lines did indeed lay north-south, but they were just spur lines that served small towns within 30 or 40 miles of the main track. They went nowhere. And it was certain that none of them that had come from Nebraska.
In later years as I reconstructed the details of family history I wondered if perhaps they had traveled back to the big rail center in St. Paul, Minnesota and then went west to Montana on the Great Northern. That would have involved a lot of backtracking on a most difficult trip with kids, cattle and plows.
In 2010 I visited the Plainsman Museum in Aurora, Nebraska, in Hamilton County where my grandparents farmed for 12 years and where my Dad and his brothers were born and a three week old sister was buried in the old church yard.
I asked the curators about the possibility of north-south railroads back in the day and they took me to a large display of railroad maps from the mid-late 1800s. Oh, yes…not only possible. There.
These maps clearly showed many north-south railroads which he said were very, very busy in the late 1880s specifically because of migration north where there was still land for the taking for a hardworking man. There they were–the chicken tracks of rail beds on those dusty old maps, vertical chicken scratches that began in the Nebraska-Iowa latitude and worked their way to western North Dakota, eastern Montana and eastern Wyoming.
Once the rush of immigrants of the late 1800s had died down those rail lines died out, but while they lived they provided a practical and direct way for immigrants who needed cash jobs from established farmers (in Nebraska and Iowa) so they could move on to states where land was still available around 1900 (North Dakota and Montana).
Seeing those chicken track markings on those 120 year old maps knocked a chunk off that tendency we may sometimes have–to think that history started on the day we were born.
History did not begin the day you were born. What happened before you were born directly influenced your birth, and will influence your life. History is prologue. If you don’t want to understand the world around you, ignore history, and you’ll never know what is going on. You will live in ignorance, sheep like, until someone more powerful will come along and take what is yours. Your liberty, your freedom.