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Working on the Railroad in the Old West - a Guest Post

by Michael Ross

Railroads have played an important role in American history since early in the nineteenth century, transforming what was possible in transportation, shortening the time to travel in America east coast to the west coast from months to less than a week, and bringing a flood of people and goods westward. Towns sprang up, sometimes almost overnight. Hunting and decimating forage for bison changed the Native American way of life.

Image © Alamy, used under license

The competition among companies for land, resources, influence in Congress, and getting routes first was intense, but with all the fits and starts, often resembled a three-legged race, with unequal partners striving for the same goal, and falling on their faces with bankruptcies, Indian attacks, and unexpected terrain issues.

This drama was chiefly among Cyrus Holliday, Senator Samuel C. Pomeroy, and Jason “Jay” Gould. Gould came late to the party after his success with the Erie Railroad. Holliday and Pomeroy managed to get Congress to give them land for the railroad going west and sell them land “bought” from the Pottowattomie at one dollar an acre for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe railroad. They raised money through bonds and stock sales to pay for Indian lands. In conversation with a member of the Pottawatomie tribe about why they accepted the treaty, after being swindled in two previous treaties, they said, “It’s simple – had we not accepted, the army would have killed us.”

The cast of actors, taking credit and blame for the progress of the railroads changed rapidly, but in the initial roles these three, along with Charles “J” Crocker of the Central Pacific building from the west, were prominent.

In the west, Crocker mustered armies of Chinese workers swarmed in to finish the rails, while white prospectors chased gold. On the central plains, a motley mix of Irish and Italian immigrants from the cities, along with formerly enslaved black people from the South combined to pave the iron rails across the prairie. The Union Pacific sometimes laid ten miles of track in a day, though the more usual was like on the Kansas Central Pacific, or Atchison Topeka, a mile and a half a day. Newton, the town I live in, was founded by the railroad, growing from an empty prairie to a thriving town in the space of a year.

(Courtesy Kansas Historical Society – Newton, KS Depot, 1871 ).

Each town at the “end of the line” became an instant magnet for cowboys and trail drives – Abilene, Newton, Wichita, Dodge City. During this period, Wichita achieved a reputation for evil, styled “Wicked Wichita” in newspapers across Kansas and Missouri. Saloons and brothels flourished, along with some respectable businesses. Despite the prohibition of alcohol from 1872 to 1948 in Kansas, it was widely ignored the towns regarded the fines imposed on the saloons and madams as a form of taxes, instead of having to tax respectable citizens.

Yet towns that got the railroad flourished, and many towns that did not languish, becoming near ghost towns. Businessmen in Dallas, Tx., on hearing that a rail line would pass them by, got a group together and bribed the railroad officials with one thousand dollars to change their minds. Promises were made and broken. When the railroads were built west in Kansas, a promise was made to go through the all-black town of Nicodemus – the route had fewer trestles to build, didn’t have to cross the river, and would have made the fortunes of those in the town – but in the end, the railroad took a more northerly route through Bogue, even at greater expense. The reasons were mainly racial.

Nicodemus was a town founded by black people, one of eleven in the Midwest. Nicodemus founders came from Lexington, Kentucky, and Leavenworth, Kansas, as formerly enslaved people sought to escape the new slavery of Jim Crow laws. The loss of the railroad route was a severe blow, yet the town managed to struggle on, and still exists today, as part of a National Park Service historic district.

Nicodemus is featured in my upcoming novel, The Founding, Book 3 of my Across the Great Divide series.

Author Bio:

Michael Ross is a retired software engineer and author, who writes about the untold stories of history, and the interesting characters that lived in those times. The first book in his Across the Great Divide series, was an Amazon #1 best seller in three categories and made Amazon top 100 paid. He lives with his wife, father-in-law, and Border Collie in Newton, Kansas.

HFC's Editorial Review of Michael Ross's book "The Search" is here: THE SEARCH

1 Comment

hawkar anwer
hawkar anwer
May 25, 2022

i like history

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