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The Double Effect of Railroads in the United States

Many of the societal phenomena that play a functional role for communities and reflect the scientific and technological progress of the era do not have an unambiguous effect. The advent of trains is humanity’s most ingenious invention, offering a timely solution to a transportation problem. On the other hand, the advent of railroading catalyzed the industrialization of communities, which raised such issues as the unethical use of slave labor, the destruction of cultural settlements, and the loss of human life. The advent of the railroad thus had both positive and negative effects on the lives of the American population. The purpose of this essay is to justify this thesis using scholarly literature critically.

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The United States is a rather large country, located almost entirely on the continent of North America. This means that there is a great distance between the border points of the state, overcoming which is a political, economic, 7and even cultural problem. When America was beginning to gain large-scale geopolitical influence around the world, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the country launched a plan for railroad industrialization. Under this plan, the U.S. territorial belt received multiple expanded railroad networks, including a transcontinental railroad running from the country’s center to its western border (Chang 27). The emergence of such technical metamorphosis signaled a major socioeconomic revolution for the American community.

The advent of the railroads served as a significant benefit to the people of the United States. Solving the transportation problem, that is, covering the need for transportation between points in the fastest and most comfortable way, was only one of the benefits of the railroad program. In addition, American society became more united and cohesive as the railroad became a kind of bridge between previously disparate communities (Kiger). Among other things, this was the reason for the emergence of the shadow railroads, which protected vulnerable slaves from society’s oppression (Davidson 150). This provided more opportunities for the American dream, as moving from the rural hinterland to the big cities became meaningfully more accessible. It is possible that many modern business companies with a long history were only possible because entrepreneurs of the past took advantage of the chance that progress gave them.

The advent of railroads brought economic and urban benefits. First, the train was used to transport large quantities of goods, which lowered the embedded cost of transportation and expanded the market for products (Salsbury 37). This could lead to people even from distant regions using the same products as those in the capital. Second, the long-term use of the railroads outlined the country’s federal plans and allowed for the construction of new cities at the locations of the trains. In this way, it acted as a catalyst for geographic discovery and the active industrial settlement of new territories.

On the other hand, the advent of the railroad could not bring several critical problems to the American community. Many negative aspects are associated with the development of railroads in the United States, with the active expansion of this network mainly contributing to the destructive effect. The first negative impact historically has been the reduction of the cultural diversity of Native settlements. The need to build new roads and cities went against preserving the historical heritage of indigenous tribes, resulting in the genocide of the local population (Beaumont). The authorities altered the natural topography and animal life by destroying houses and neighborhoods, causing double damage to the ecological agenda.

The construction of railroads was closely tied to the use of slave labor. Laying a standard railroad was hard physical labor, and given the large size of the American state, considerable resources of cheap economic labor were required. Sources report that the primary labor force was Chinese migrants, who toiled in brutal, inhumane labor conditions for little pay in total unsanitary conditions (Kennedy). This slave labor led to outbreaks of infectious diseases and physical exhaustion, resulting in premature deaths. Although there are no exact statistics on the number of migrant deaths, it seems that the number is not insignificant.

An ambiguous effect is associated with the apparent use of the railroad in the American Civil War. The railroad became a strategically important sector because it ensured the viability of conflicting communities through established food and military equipment supplies. One can extrapolate and say that the railroad made possible the Civil War, which took many lives but gave the United States a new milestone of historical development. In turn, this highlights the ambiguity of this effect and shows how quickly the railroad built became essential.

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The railroad was not the only effect on the American community. The impact of such massive industrialization quickly is challenging to describe universally, but instead, all aspects of the railroad should be critically examined. It was discussed that it had both positive and negative effects on the American community. Among the positive effects, transportation accessibility, catalyzing economic prosperity and promoting business, and increasing opportunities for opening new cities were highlighted. It is true that the American population became unified and connected the moment the railroad network emerged. Meanwhile, among the adverse effects were the genocide of indigenous populations and migrant slave labor, environmental damage, and the promotion of civil war. This confirms the central thesis of the essay: railroads in the United States have not had a strictly unambiguous effect on the population.

Works Cited

Beaumont, Hilary. “The Activists Sabotaging Railways in Solidarity with Indigenous People.” The Guardian, 2021, Web.

Chang, Gordon H. “Chinese Railroad Workers and the US Transcontinental Railroad in Global Perspective.” The Chinese and the Iron Road. Stanford University Press, 2020 pp. 27-41.

Davidson, James West. A Little History of the United States. Yale University Press, 2015.

Kennedy, Lesley. “Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen at First Railroad Companies Were Reluctant to Hire Chinese Workers, but the Immigrants Soon Proved to Be Vital.” History, 2020, Web.

Kiger, Patrick J. “10 Ways the Transcontinental Railroad Changed America.” History, 2019, Web.

Salsbury, Stephen. “The Emergence of an Early Large-Scale Technical System: The American Railroad Network.” The Development of Large Technical Systems, 2019, pp. 37-68.

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