Have you ever thought about the role railroads played in the settlement of the land in the Northern central part of the United States? This area, now known as the Midwest, includes Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, and Missouri.

Before the railroads were built in the United States, the only practical way to travel and trade across long distances was along the nation’s natural waterways. In the Midwest, the Ohio River, Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes were vital waterways. Traders and settlers used canoes, boats, and barges on the streams and rivers. Rivers like the Ohio, which connected with the Mississippi River, were also essential in transporting goods produced in the fertile area surrounding the Ohio River.

A major change occurred in the 1800’s. Thousands of miles of railroad track were laid throughout the Midwest connecting rural areas with major metropolitan areas such as Chicago. Prior to 1840, Illinois had virtually no miles of railroad. However, forty years later the state had 8,000 miles of railroad. According to Railroads in the Midwest, Early Documents and Images (Knox College), “In the 1850’s more track was laid in the Midwest, east of the Mississippi, than in any other part of the country.” It was a time of rapid westward expansion.

Located at the intersection of river, lake, and railroad routes, Chicago became a hub of commerce. Trains carried coal to Chicago’s steel mills and cattle and hogs to Chicago’s stockyards. They also carried wheat, corn, passengers, and mail. Sears Roebuck and Company, a Chicago firm, even used trains to deliver some of its mail order products to customers.

Maps of the routes of these early Illinois railroads clearly show Chicago as the hub of the rail system in Illinois. The Chicago, Danville, and Vincennes Railroad Company, founded in 1870, served part of eastern Illinois and western Indiana. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy (CB&Q) ran fast mail trains from Chicago to areas west of Chicago. According to Railroads in the Midwest, Early Documents and Images (Knox College), “Begun in the 1870’s, the fast mail trains were mandated by the federal Post Office to deliver mail within a specified period of time. By 1900 the Burlington’s fast mail trains reached the Missouri River in just over nine hours.”

According to the same source, “From 1861-1890 the nation’s railroads grew more rapidly than at any other time. Just before the Civil War, the United States had about 30,600 miles of line; in 1890 steam railroad line measured almost 163,000 miles. The men who ran the railroads at this time were cognizant of their roles in the expansion of the American nation and the American economy even as it was being played out.”

—By Karen Centowski

To see a video called U.S. Railroad History Map 1830—1990’s You Tube, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8lX5A2q-Eo.

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