Stanford University
CESTA
Transcontinental Railroad Development, 1879-1893
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Transcontinental Railroad Development, 1879-1893

Authors: Toral Patel, Killeen Hanson, Jeremy Zallen, Erik Steiner and Richard White

This visualization demonstrates how the transcontinentals built ahead of demand. In 1879, a decade after the completion of the first transcontinental, much of the West remained lightly settled compared to the East and as a consequence provided little traffic to the railroads that bisected it.

As the darker shadings show, there were three clusters of relatively dense settlement in the West and two less densely settled clusters. The lands east of the 98th meridian in Kansas and Nebraska, the prairie lands of the Middle Border, East Texas formed a broad concentration of settlement large enough to support railroads. These areas, however, had adequate railroad connections through St. Louis and Chicago. They did not need transcontinentals. A much smaller cluster of population, centered on Denver and the Rocky Mountain front provided some rationale for a road to Denver. A third cluster of settlement spread out from San Francisco through the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. There was a smaller concentration of settlement around Portland and the Willamette Valley in Oregon and another at Salt Lake City. California and Oregon needed railroads feeding their ports, but they did not need transcontinentals.

The visualization demonstrates how population did increase along sections of the transcontinentals in the 1880s and early 1890s, but the spread was patchy. The railroads still did not have the traffic to sustain them. They collapsed into receivership in the Depression of 1893-96.
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