I Hear the Locomotives: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad


In "Passage to India," Walt Whitman sings in wonderment at the sight of the Transcontinental Railroad. Envisioning himself a passenger, he hears the echoes of the whistle "reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world." The train brings Whitman to the mountains, plains, deserts and forests, whose images he uses to create a romantic portrait of the West that feels eternal.

What the Transcontinental Railroad actually brought was change.

By 1881, it was routine to travel by train from eastern cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore to San Francisco. The round trip that took Lewis and Clark two-and-a-half years in 1803 was now a nine-day journey. The consequences of this new technology were profound. Nothing in the West would ever be the same again.

Analyzing archival material such as photos, documents, and posters, students can truly appreciate the phenomenon of the Transcontinental Railroad. They can begin to answer some important questions: Why was the Transcontinental Railroad built? How did it affect Native Americans? Other minorities? How was the environment affected? What were the advantages of railroad travel? Who used the railroads, and why? Who built the railroad?

Help your class make connections between the arrival of the railroads and many of the changes occurring in the United States and its territories.

Guiding Questions

Why was the Transcontinental Railroad built? Who built it? Who used the railroads, and why? What effects did the Transcontinental Railroad have on the U.S.?

Learning Objectives

After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to

List at least three effects the Transcontinental Railroad had on the regions through which it passed.

Use archival documents to demonstrate the effect of the Transcontinental Railroad on the U.S.