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America on the Move
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American Railroads in the 20th Century
 

Introduction — Rails Accelerate an Economy and a Culture

Most of us take transportation for granted. America on the Move - by means of its exhibition in Washington (the largest at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History), its education kits circulated to school districts throughout the U.S., and its extensive website - counters that attitude. Society has always depended on its systems of transport.

The timeline of America on the Move begins in 1876, the nation's Centennial. By that time, railroads had already spanned the continent and united the country in an unprecedented transportation network.

The results were soon profound: economically, culturally, and politically. Personal mobility radically expanded; one could travel across the country in a week in the 1870s instead of taking several months just a decade before.

The economy began a huge expansion, growing almost ten-fold in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Physical mobility became essential for social mobility. And the old sectionalism of our pre-Civil War politics eroded. As historian John Hankey has noted, citizens spoke more often of a singular, "this United States" instead of a plural, "these United States."

Railroads in the 20th century continued to develop. By 1970, rail freight began setting all-time yearly records. Between 1970 and 2000, rail freight doubled. There were, however, many big adjustments along the way.

Whereas in 1900 the train carried almost all long-distance travelers, in 2000 such travelers almost all went by car or airplane. America on the Move highlights this complex history, with a preamble from the late 19th century.

To the right is the famous photograph by Andrew J. Russell of the ceremony that celebrated the final joining of the rails of the world's first transcontinental rail line. On May 10, 1869, a golden spike was driven, a telegrapher signaled, "Done!" and bells rang in cities from coast to coast, in one of the first news bulletins shared nationwide in real-time.

Locomotives and track-laying crews meet at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, on the completion of the world's first transcontinental railroad.
Locomotives and track-laying crews meet at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869, on the completion of the world's first transcontinental railroad.
 
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