Changing the Landscape

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“Valley of the Great Laramie, from the mountains,” 1869. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Deforestation and Development

The requirements of building the railroad resulted in significant devastation of the forests of the American West. Lumber was needed for railroad ties, as well as fuel and shelter for workers who needed to cook and stay warm during year-round work on the railroad. Snow sheds, which protected the exposed tracks during the winter months in the mountains, were continuously constructed and dismantled. Support beams for tunnels and bridges were needed to protect workers and the trains. Even after the railroad was constructed, large amounts of wood were required, including on some areas of track that Union Pacific and the Central Pacific had hastily built and planned to go back and fix. These areas not only led to the derailment of trains, but required more logging to make the necessary repairs.

The train not only enabled the migration of people, it also allowed Americans to conquer terrains and remote environments previously impassable and uninhabitable and goods necessary to support large populations to be shipped with lightning speed. As sparsely populated areas grew into towns and cities, they began encroaching upon once “wild” areas. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad dramatically catalyzed the development of the West, a process that both extended settlement and mining into otherwise unreachable areas and caused desertification (or, dry and arid conditions) in places along the route.