A Nation Transformed

“The Holdup, 1869,” an illustration of a train delayed while bison cross the tracks on the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Courtesy of Southern Methodist University.

The Death of the West

As impressive an achievement as the Transcontinental Railroad was, it also signified the beginning of the end for the “untamed” American West. Hunting for sport became more popular, as passengers on trains hunted herds of bison as they rode across the Great Plains. These train-hunts were designed to both provide entertainment for passengers and to reduce food supplies for Native Americans, who relied on the bison as a staple for survival. Since Native Americans were some of the biggest opponents to westward expansion, lawmakers and railroad pundits alike supported these cruel hunting practices. Unfortunately for both the bison and Native Americans, these wasteful practices were incredibly successful in driving both populations to the edge of annihilation.

The Transcontinental Railroad also commercialized parts of the agricultural west. Forcibly relocating dozens of Native American tribes and seizing their land opened land for pioneer farmers. Areas of the Great Plains that were previously considered unsuitable for farming were reallocated by the Homestead Act of 1862. As a trade for government subsidization, farmers that purchased this new, cheap farmland were expected to work the semi-arid grassland of the High Plains to repay their debts.

Areas that could not be reached by railroad also experienced a sharp decline in population. As the costs of supplying plains and desert communities continued to rise, families moved to greener, more central states. Abandoned communities, isolated by land and resources, created ghost towns across the West. Although the railroad provided opportunities for growth for towns lucky enough to have access, most settlements that relied on wagons to transport goods found that they could not pay the costs necessary to ensure basic survival.