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.