Games Learning Resources Visit the Museum
America on the Move
Collection Exhibition Themes
Community Dreams: Santa Cruz, California, 1876 Delivering the Goods: Watsonville, California, 1895 A Streetcar City: Washington, D.C., 1900 People on the Move The Connected City: New York, New York, 1920s Crossing the Country: Somewhere in Wyoming, 1903 Americans Adopt the Auto Lives on the Railroad: Salisbury, North Carolina, 1927 The People's Highway: Route 66, 1930s-1940s Roadside Communities: Ring's Rest, Muirkirk, Maryland, 1930s Family Camping: York Beach, Maine, 1930s On the School Bus: Martinsburg, Indiana, 1939 Suburban Strip: Sandy Boulevard, Portland, Oregon, 1949 City and Suburb: Chicago and Park Forest, Illinois, 1950s On the Interstate: I-10, 1956-1990 Transforming the Waterfront: San Francisco and Oakland, California, 1960-1970 Going Global: Los Angeles Introduction Connecting the Growing Nation A Century of Progress?
1: Transportation in America before 1876

A Century of Progress?

In 1876, the United States celebrated its centennial. As a result of purchase, diplomacy, and war, the nation spread from coast to coast. Some people were enthusiastic, seeing it as an expression of the young country’s “manifest destiny,” its inevitable growth. Others—including many Native Americans and many people living in U.S. territories that used to be part of Mexico—held differing views. For those enthusiastic about expansion, the completion of a transcontinental railroad link in 1869 was the achievement of the age. The vast reaches of the country were bound together as never before. Americans could imagine themselves marching to the beat of technological progress, free from the constraints of time and distance.

Trains meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah, 1869, on the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.
Trains meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah, 1869, on the completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

This famous photo was taken moments after the completion of North America’s first transcontinental rail line. On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad Company and Thomas Clark Durant, Union Pacific Railroad Company vice president, drove the last spike at Promontory, Utah, linking the eastern railroad system to California. In six years, more than 20,000 workers—Chinese (absent from this picture), Irish, and others—had laid down some 1,700 miles of track in the largest American civil-works project to that time.

Map, "Centennial American Republic and Railroad Map of the United States and of the Dominion of Canada," 1875

This map shows the extent of the growing railroad network. It is decorated with icons of the American past and visions of progress, such as the Centennial Exhibition building in Philadelphia. In the 20 years that followed the centennial, American railroad companies added more than 100,000 miles of track to the system, further connecting the nation’s economy, politics, and cultures.

Map, 'Centennial American Republic and Railroad Map of the United States and of the Dominion of Canada,' 1875
Next Section
National Museum of American History About This Site | Sponsors | Buy the Book | E-mail Signup | Credits