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State of Alabama. October. 2nd. 1866.

[Detail] State of Alabama. October. 2nd. 1866.

Collection Overview

Railroad Maps, 1828-1900, a subset of Maps, is a collection of maps that represent an important historical record, illustrating the growth of travel and settlement as well as the development of industry and agriculture in the United States. They depict the development of cartographic style and technique, highlighting the achievement of early railroaders. Included in the collection are progress report surveys for individual lines, official government surveys, promotional maps, maps showing land grants and rights-of-way, and route guides published by commercial firms.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • Expansion and Reform, 1801-1861
  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Also browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection

Search for maps using the keyword search. Browse the collection using the Title Index, Subject Index, Contributor Index, Geographic Locations or Railroad Lines Index

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


U.S. History

The primary source materials of Railroad Maps, 1828-1900 provide students with first-hand evidence of several important aspects of nineteenth-century American history. Students can explore the development of railroad transportation, military campaigns, the growth of the nation, industrialism, and tourism. Because students can find evidence of these historical topics for themselves in the collection's maps, they will gain a lasting comprehension of what they discover.

1) Railroad Transportation

For a good introduction to the collection, students can study the introduction of railroads to the United States and its impact, from its most fundamental significance to its more sophisticated meaning.

Trains introduced new innovations in the continuing search for the easiest way to move large loads of passengers and goods quickly and efficiently from one place to another. The train linked together several cars or vehicles into one long caravan. This linking was made possible by the use of tracks or roads of rail to guide the train behind the pulling engine. The locomotive was thought of as concentrating the pulling power of many horses into one entity, and thus rated by degree of "horse power". Students can better appreciate these and other changes introduced by the railroad, by examining maps of their choice from the collection's Title Index. They can also search on the name of their home town or state, or on the name of major American cities to find maps of places with which they are familiar. Ask students to find basic information from the maps such as:

  • How many rail lines are depicted on the map? Are they all operated by the same company?
  • Where do rail lines start and end? Through what cities do the trains travel?
  • Noting the date of the map, what types of trains possibly ran on the routes shown? For example, were they likely to be steam powered or electric?
  • What other forms of transportation are depicted on the map?
  • Do the rail lines depicted on the map still exist today?

Then students can look with more depth to find evidence of

  • How railroads were used
  • How widespread their use and impact was
  • The creation of railroad companies
  • The relationship between railroads and urbanization patterns

For additional transportation maps, students can browse the Title Index for the Transportation and Communication section of Map Collections: 1500-2004.


2) Military Campaigns

In 1764, British engineer Capt. John Montressor built the first North American railway, located in Lewiston, New York, and used it for military purposes. Military usage continued to be an impetus for the development of railroad technology. The railroad's ability to transport troops and supplies was a major impetus for railroad mapping during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln had these military benefits in mind when he backed the building of the transcontinental railroad, although it was not completed until 1869.

Search on military to find maps depicting railroads used for military purposes. Based on the year the map was made, students can determine for which war the map was created. They can determine how railroads aided in the war effort. Between what areas did the trains run? How was that important to the military campaign? What additional forms of transportation might the soldiers have used? How might the enemy act upon the information it would glean from such a map? How are trains used in war in modern times?

For additional maps, students can browse the Subject Index for the Military Battles and Campaigns section of Map Collections: 1500-2004. Within that section of the collection is Civil War Maps which students can browse by its Title Index.

3) Westward Expansion

Pioneering and westward expansion also fueled the growth of railroads while railroads, in turn, fueled pioneering and expansion. Pioneers' movement West created demand for means of transportation to new territories. That demand rose in 1848 when America acquired California at the end of the Mexican War and a man discovered gold in this future state. The demand was eventually met in part by railroads, which increased expansion by fostering migration and adding railroad laborers to the population of pioneers.

Between 1850 and 1857, the Appalachian Mountains were crossed by five railway lines linking the Midwest and the East. In the late 1850s, a continuous line connected the lower Mississippi River with the southern Atlantic seaboard. And, on May 10, 1869, laborers completed the transcontinental railroad, linking the continent.

Students can search on California and the railroad lines Union Pacific and Central Pacific to find maps of the western region. To assist in their understanding of frontier life, students can read books in the collections California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 and Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910. Use the option of searching the descriptive information of each collection on railroad. Students can use the maps of California and the western territories in Railroad Maps, 1828-1900 to see the railroad lines discussed by the authors. From these readings students will gain a sense of the importance of the railroad to the pioneer lifestyle and the impact of the railroad on their lives.

For additional maps of Westward Expansion, students can search on the names of western states and regions across Maps.


4) Agriculture and Industrialization

Settlers of the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century developed large-scale dry-farming methods. These farming techniques required new farm equipment. As the equipment became available, more land came under cultivation between 1870 and 1900 than in the previous 250 years, bringing the American frontier to a close. Trains supported this agricultural boom. Railroads were necessary to transport the farms' harvests to the cities. At the same time, railroads also supported an industrial boom fueled by the exploitation of natural resources. Like farmers, mining and logging companies needed a way to transport their products to industrial centers and found their need met by trains.

Have students search on the names of states and cities that were either the sources of raw materials or the centers of industrial production. Students will see how these areas were serviced by rail lines.

For additional maps showing settlement patterns of the West, students can browse the Title Index for the Cultural Landscapes section of Map Collections: 1500-2004.

5) Postal Service

After nearly 4,000 years of delivery by foot, horse, or boat, in the early 19th century the speed of mail delivery was greatly improved with the use of steamships and railroads. The first American railway post office was created in 1864. Where trains did not run, stagecoaches continued to deliver mail. Students can use this collection to study the impact of railroads on the postal service and its impact on the American lifestyle.

Search on mail service and post service to retrieve maps of post office locations and the rail lines that served them. Have students consider how quicker postal service would have affected the daily lives of citizens. Did most people receive mail each day? Who would send them letters? To whom might they write? What kinds of information might have been communicated by mail? How would business benefit from faster postal service?

To retrieve additional maps of postal routes and post offices, students can search on post and mail in the Transportation and Communication section of Map Collections: 1500-2004. Also have students search on telegraph to find maps depicting the routes this form of communication traveled.

6) Tourism

After the Civil War, railroad developers looked to the scenic draw of the West as a means of attracting railroad travelers. Rather than looking to settle in new lands, many of these travelers were vacationing. Students can see how mapmakers targeted potential tourists by viewing the 1836 map The tourist's guide through the states of Maryland, Delaware and part of Pennsylvania & Virginia. Students can answer the following questions:

  • How does this map particularly cater to tourists in the information it includes?
  • What text did the cartographer include on the map?
  • If you were a tourist, would you be intrigued to visit areas on the map? What route would you travel? What places would you see?

For this and other tourists' maps of the West, students can search on railroad in Mapping the National Parks section of Map Collections: 1500-2004.


Critical Thinking

Railroad Maps, 1828-1900 provides students an opportunity to study a form of transportation and its documentation while also improving their historical thinking skills. Using the collection's maps in comparative exercises, students will develop their chronological thinking and historical comprehension, while other activities draw on research and role playing to develop analysis, interpretation, and judgment.

Chronological Thinking

To look for change over time, students can compare the oldest map in the collection to the ones more recently created. Have students choose a geographic region from the Geographic Location Index. Then view the maps in chronological order. Considering maps as reflections of the railroad during the time periods in which they were created, students can look for and analyze evidence of how railroad transportation changed.

  • Where were railroad tracks first located? Where were additional tracks constructed?
  • How did the land around the railroad tracks change over time? What factors influenced these changes?
  • What new cities are shown on the maps? How did older cities change?
  • Was there a time of greater or less growth of railroad usage? Or was growth consistent over this time?

Students can also see how the technology changed over time by searching across the American Memory prints and photograph collections on train, locomotive, or railroad.


Historical Comprehension

Humans have long searched for the easiest, quickest, and most efficient ways to transport themselves and their goods from one place to another. Railroads provided people a new option for carrying heavy loads greater distances at faster speeds.

Students can better understand the impact and use of the railroad by comparing the benefits and disadvantages of railroad transportation to other forms available at the time. Have them assume the role of a distributor looking to ship their goods from one location to another. For example, decide the year will be 1859 and they are cotton distributors in the South, or Northerners shipping manufactured products. Have the students answer the following questions by searching for maps in the collection by the date and region specified in the scenario.

  • What forms of transportation are available between the places your goods need to travel? (Search on the keyword phrase Map of the canals & rail roads of the United States to find maps depicting various forms of transportation).
  • What routes do these modes of transport travel?
  • What are the benefits and disadvantages of each type of transportation available?
  • If the goal is to have the goods arrive as soon as possible, which transportation option would you choose? Does the size, amount, or type of product you are shipping dictate that one mode of transportation would be better than another?

Inform students of the corruption within the railroad industry. If they were looking to ship goods, they may have been charged higher or lower rates than others depending on the size of their shipment, where they were shipping to and from, and other factors. Discuss the affect of President Grover Cleveland signing the Interstate Commerce Act In 1887 which forbade excessive charges, pools, rebates and rate discrimination, and created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to guard against violations of the act.

For an historical account of the corruption of the Southern Pacific Railroad, students can read My Own Story, 1919 by journalist Fremont Older (1856-1935) Parts 4 and 7 in the collection California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900.


Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Students can learn to analyze and interpret maps by determining how land grants affected railroads. Many federal policies are actualized in physical characteristics of the American landscape. Railroad Maps, 1828-1900 allows students to see the effects of government policies of land grants and rights-of-way on patterns of settlement. Between 1850 and 1872 the government ceded public lands to states and railroad companies to promote railroad construction in the West and South. In return, the railroads were required to transport goods for the government at reduced rates.

To see examples of how these land grants shaped the landscape, students can search the collection on land grant and look for the swatches of land given to railroads. How did these land grants influence the patterns of development of railroads? And how did the railroad then influence urbanization patterns? Look for evidence of settlement along the train routes.

At the bottom of the map appears the following text:
A full Township contains 36 Sections, each containing 640 acres, more or less, numbered as above.
Even or shaded Sections belong to the Government.
Surveyed Townships are indicated thus: + "

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making

When railroad companies needed to decide where to build new railroad lines, many issues were analyzed. Students can read The Transcontinental Railroad from the special presentation, History of Railroads and Maps, and then list the geographic, economic, political, and social factors influencing the selection of the route for the first transcontinental railroad. In addition, they can discuss the different goals people sought to achieve with a transcontinental railroad. For example, while Abraham Lincoln saw the transcontinental railroad as a way to unite East and West into one nation, builder Theodore D. Judah inspired his co-investors with promises of wealth and fame. In researching the best route, the government designated the Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to survey possible routes to the Pacific in 1853. Why was the Secretary of War chosen for this task? What goals might he have had in mind?

Students can search on trans-continental or transcontinental and proposed to see researched train routes. Students can compare the process of choosing railroad routes to that of deciding where to construct interstate highways.


Historical Research Capabilities

The study of railroad maps provides students the opportunity to consider the importance of maintaining an historic record and to research the creation and use of railroad maps. Ask students about the maps and train schedules they may have used in their lives. Do they still have these items? If students use public transportation in their daily lives, ask what they do with their old maps when the routes are changed and revised maps are printed. Most students will have thrown away these maps.

With this perspective, students can discuss why the maps in this collection were saved and are presented here. For example, search on New York City to find maps of the city's train system.

Are these maps somehow "more important" then the maps we use today? Were they more important to their users than railroad maps are to those who use them today? Students are likely to arrive at the conclusion that, among other things, the number of maps produced factors into the value of each map of that type. To understand when printed materials became less precious, students can research printing techniques to see when mass production of maps became more efficient. As a continuation of this study, students can also research when in history private citizens would have needed train maps. When did people begin traveling by train? Where were they going? On vacation? Moving to a new place? Commuting to work? How do these uses relate to the maps' value?

For additional information on the history of railroad mapping techniques, students can read the special presentation History of Railroads and Maps.


Arts & Humanities

Although very little text accompanies the artifacts in Railroad Maps, 1828-1900, there are creative ways to use these maps in a language arts program. The maps can be used as starting points and illustrations for biographies and book reports. They can also be used in conjunction with literature and songs in exercises in which the combination of these media enhance the meaning to be derived from each.

1) Biography

Louisiana c1895. Published by Rand McNally and Company

Louisiana, c1895. Published by Rand McNally and Company.

To aid in their understanding of the history of railroads, students can research and write a biography of an important contributor to railroads and railroad maps. They can browse the collection's Creator Index to find maps they like and then research the cartographer. They can also read the special presentation History of Railroads and Maps to find the names of other figures in the history of railroads.

Their reports should include how the individual contributed to railroad development. They can also include information on the state of railroad transportation during this individual's life.

Images of the person they chose to research may be included in other American Memory collections. Search across the American Memory prints and photographs collections on the individual's name to retrieve images.

2) Travel Stories

Complementing this collection's maps with travel stories from American Memory, teachers may create an activity in which the concurrent use of text and visual data adds to the comprehension of each. To find books recounting individuals' experiences with train travel search the descriptive information on railroad in the collections California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives, 1849-1900 and Pioneering the Upper Midwest, ca. 1820-1910.

Students can search Railroad Maps to find maps of the regions written about in the travel stories. Then ask them to find on the map the names of landmarks mentioned by the authors. If the author wrote about a trip, have the students trace the route the writer traveled. Students can write a book report with maps from the collection as illustration.


3) Rhythm

To assist in the study of rhythm in writing, whether poetry, lyrics, or even prose, use the imagery of the railroad. Ask students what sound a moving train makes. (Although many modern trains do not make the "chug-a chug-a chug-a chug-a" sound, most people are likely to vocalize this beat when asked to make the sound of a moving train.)

Then have students listen to historic recordings of railroad songs to hear the train rhythm guiding the song. Search on railroad in the American Memory collections listed below to find sound recordings, song sheets and sheet music. (Note that someone may need to play the sheet music for students who are unable to read it.)

Noting the dates and regions where these songs were performed, students can search Railroad Maps to see what rail lines traversed the areas in which the songs' creators lived.

Once the students can hear the rhythm of the train in these songs, have them write poetry and prose with this same rhythm. Students will need to think of words that fit the rhythm in either the number of syllables, the sounds of the letters, or other creative ways. They can recite the poem aloud for the class while listening students tap out the rhythm of the train.


4) Lyrics

Railroad songs can also be used in an exercise focusing on lyrics. Lyrics are a wonderful way to learn of the lives of those who wrote and sang them. Lyrics to railroad songs provide further evidence of the significance of the railroad in America. Have students search on railroad in these collections to find lyrics about trains.

  • With what are railroads associated or equated?
  • What words and imagery did people use to describe railroads?
  • Were trains a part of their daily lives? If so, how?
  • Do the songs reflect hopes and fears people associated with railroads?
  • What other information about trains do the songs provide?

Noting the names of towns and cities and the names and types of trains mentioned in the lyrics, students can search Railroad Maps to find evidence of and information about the rail lines people may have been singing about.

Having studied the language and content of lyrics, students can write their own songs about trains. They can practice using imagery and conveying emotions and concepts through word choice.

5) Literature

Many American authors have used railroads symbolically in their novels, essays, or short stories. Some titles include The Octopus by Frank Norris, Song of the Lark by Willa Cather, and Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Teachers can provide students with excerpts from novels or other writings that use trains in this and other ways. Have students determine the significance of the train to the plot if appropriate, and the overall meaning of the work. Why did the author use the railroad as opposed to other forms of transportation? What does the use of a train convey to the reader?

Students can then search the collection on the region where the story takes place or on names of railroads, such as Thoreau's Fitchburg Railroad. If maps of the region or railroad do not exist in the collection, students can search for others of the same time period or place. What additional information do the maps provide about the railroad system at that time? How do they enhance your understanding of the novel or story? Do they prove or disprove the historical accuracy or symbolic meaning of the writing?