During the 1840s, rails extended beyond the northern eastern and Middle Atlantic states, and mileage increased more than threefold, reaching a total of more than 9000 miles by 1850. Expansion was even greater in the following decade, and by 1860, all the states east of the Mississippi had rail service. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, railroads cut deeply into the freight business of the canals and drove many of them out of business. The cost of hauling goods by rail decreased dramatically because of improved track construction and the introduction of powerful locomotives that could haul more cars.
The development of railroads had an enormous effect on the economy as a whole. Although the burgeoning demand for iron rails was initially met mainly be importation from England, it eventually spurred development of the domestic iron industry. Since railroads required an enormous outlay of capital, their promoters pioneered new methods for financing business enterprise. At a time when most manufacturing and mercantile concerns were s still owned by families or partnerships, the railroad companies sold stock to the general public and helped to set the pattern for the separation of ownership and control that characterizes the modern corporation.
Robert A. Divine, et al., The American Story, 3rd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Pearson Education, Inc., 2007), 344.
During the 1850s, the only land added to the United States was a barren stretch of some 30,000 square miles south of the Gila River in present New Mexico and Arizona. This Gadsden Purchase of 1853, in which the United States paid Mexico $10 million, was made to acquire land offering a likely route for a Pacific railroad. The idea of building a railroad linking together the new continental domain of the United States, though a great national goal, spawned sectional rivalries in still another quarter and reopened the slavery issue. Among the many transcontinental routes projected, the four most important were the northern route for Milwaukee to the Columbia River, a central route from St. Louis to San Francisco, anther from Memphis to Los Angeles, and a more southerly route from New Orleans to San Diego via the Gadsden Purchase.
George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi, eds., America: A Narrative History, 5th ed., Vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999), 693.
Across the Lower South, the iron horse, symbol of a speeding new industrial age, dawdled at the pace of the largely preindustrial communities it connected. A modern jet races over the approximately 650 miles between New Orleans and Charleston in a single easy hour. A modern automobile speeds over the approximately 750 miles of superhighway between the two cities in a single hard day. Mid-nineteenth century trains could meander over the approximately 1000 miles of tracks between the two centers in a long, unforgettable week – if one made connections.
Connections alone made the week unforgettable. No railroad connected New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, or Mobile and Montgomery, Alabama’s capital. One had to take a steamer from New Orleans to Mobile, then transfer to a horse-drawn carriage at Mobile to traverse the 75-mile dirt road to pollard, Alabama. Fairly direct train tracks to Montgomery and on to Atlanta, Georgia, and Charleston were then available. But one had to transfer successfully between six different railroad companies.
William W. Freehling, Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854, vol. 1 of The Road to Disunion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 25-26.