While railroads continued their rapid expansion during the 1870s the decade nevertheless contained its share of issues; 1873's financial panic crippled America's economy while the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 left an ugly scar on the industry. Despite these setbacks, historian John Stover notes in his book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," the U.S. rail network grew from 52,900 in 1870 to 93,200 by 1880 (by region the Mid-Atlantic saw a 42% increase, the South 55%, the "Old Northwest" 70%, and the West 151%). By 1880, all the states, and territories which later became states, boasted at least a few miles of track. In the west, the Transcontinental Railroad had just been finished (1869) while eastern systems focused on reaching Chicago. One notable was the Baltimore & Ohio, America's first common-carrier, which arrived in the Windy City in 1875. While the construction and consolidation of carriers west of the Mississippi was still ongoing, back east the railroads we now commonly refer to as classic "fallen flags" were either already established or soon to be. In an era prior to government oversight, arrogant and pompous owners continued (although in declining numbers) to cause inefficient operations by refusing interchange and maintaining their own track gauge.
By the 1870's, American railroads were quickly transforming themselves into the modern incarnation we recognize today. Many of the well-known freight car types were already in service (boxcars, flatcars, hoppers, tank cars, gondolas, and the caboose). Passenger amenities were also vastly improving; the first diner appeared in 1867, sleeping cars were operating in ever-greater numbers, chair cars (a type of upscale coach featuring plush, reclining, swivel seats) were first used in 1875, and even central heating (via steam) was in the experimental stages. For all of these advancements, the decade had its problems. It began with the financial Panic of 1873. Railroads were growing so fast that nearly 6,000 miles were being laid down every year (17,000 miles between 1871 and 1873). With so much new construction, lending was strained and overextended. It ultimately collapsed when Jay Cooke's banking firm, Jay Cooke & Company, could not sell the $100 million in bonds needed for the Northern Pacific Railway's construction, our country's first transcontinental railroad into the Pacific Northwest. The NP failed on September 18, 1873, which set off a chain reaction of bank failures that led to a national depression.
According to the book, "Railroads In The Days Of Steam" by authors Albert McCready and Lawrence Sagle, as a rare federal charter Northern Pacific was provided 25,600 acres of public land for each new mile constructed. Following its bankruptcy the government attempted to revoke this charter but such draconian measures were spared when new ownership managed to procure further funding and see its completion by 1883. Economic issues were not the only concern facing railroads: America's Heartland was filled with angry Native Americans who were not happy about the White Man's encroachment onto their lands. Whenever possible they routinely destroyed track, derailed trains, and disrupted operations. It was a serious problem during Union Pacific's construction in the 1860's as grading and track crews were constantly harassed. In response, the U.S. government provided military support. After several years of bloodshed, capped by the famous Battle At Little Big Horn where Colonel George A. Custer's Seventh Calvary was annihilated by the Sioux Nation (led by Crazy Horse), most of the fighting had ended by 1877. The 1870's also saw new Midwestern startups like the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe pushing westward across the plains and into the southwest. According to Keith Bryant, Jr.'s excellent book, "History Of The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway," the AT&SF began as the Atchison & Topeka Railroad of 1859. After spreading across the Midwest, new leadership under William Barstow Strong in 1877 allowed it to reach California by 1883.
The Southern Pacific was also feverishly building that decade, working its way east from the San Joaquin Valley towards the Gulf Coast. The SP served most of Southern California by the end of the 1860's; under the leadership of Collis P. Huntington it reached El Paso, Texas in 1881 and New Orleans, Louisiana soon afterward. This corridor became its legendary "Sunset Route." While westward expansion was underway railroads also grew prodigiously back east. As the 1870's dawned, Southern railroads were still recovering from the Civil War's ravages. But within a decade they had rebounded handsomely, gaining 55% of their 1870 mileage (or, over 19,000 miles). The 1870's also witnessed the four major eastern trunk lines either complete their Chicago corridors or nearly so (Erie Railroad). The Pennsylvania Railroad had arrived decades earlier, in 1852, while the future New York Central System provided a direct link in 1873 when owner Cornelius Vanderbilt named himself president of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern. The Baltimore & Ohio reached the Windy City a few years later, in 1875, although indirectly.
According to the book, "Baltimore & Ohio Railroad" by Kirk Reynolds and David Oroszi, the B&O's through route, via Pittsburgh, was not established until 1891 thanks to the efforts of President John W. Garrett, who became the railroad's seventh president on November 17, 1858. Upon the road's push towards Chicago he stated, "...he would pull down the temple of high freight rates upon the heads of rival lines like the biblical Samson." The Erie Railroad was the last, making its entrance during the 1880's via acquisition of the Chicago & Atlantic Railway. The standard track gauge of 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches became increasingly common during the 1870's although numerous widths still persisted. For instance, roughly six different gauges could be found throughout the country: 4 feet, 8 1/2 inches (found predominantly in the Northeast and Midwest); 4 feet, 10 inches (Ohio); 5 feet (South/Southeast); 5 feet, 4 inches; 5 feet, 6 inches; 6 feet; and the Pennsylvania Railroad used a gauge of 4 feet, 9 inches. As a historical footnote, the gauge of 4 foot, 8 1/2 inches was adopted from England; that country's horse carriages largely used this width and so the concept was applied to early railroads of the 1820's.
The 1870s' final significant development was the adoption of Standard Time Zones. Since the actual time of day could vary greatly, from a few minutes to several (depending on one's location), a better system was needed. This was particularly true following the Transcontinental Railroad's completion where the western time differed by hours. Such an arrangement made it impossible for railroads to precisely coordinate schedules, an issue they didn't particularly mind at the time given the rabid level of competition. According to the book, "The Railroad Passenger Car: And Illustrated History Of The First Hundred Years With Accounts By Contemporary Passengers" by August Mencken, Charles Ferdinand Dowd was the first to propose a standard time within a pamphlet he published in 1870 entitled, "A System of National Time for the Railroads." This piece became the basis for the industry's standard time. Dowd was an 1853 graduate of Yale University (boasting a doctorate) who believed the country should be divided into four sections. These segments would cover 15 degrees of longitude, or an hour of real time. As the years passed the idea slowly gained traction although more than a decade would pass before it found widespread use. In 1876, William Allen, secretary of the Time Table Convention (which later became the General Time Convention), planned the four major time zones railroads would use.
They were listed by geographical location: Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific. These zones lay along the 75th (Eastern), 90th (Central), 105th (Mountain) and 120th (Pacific) meridians. Following more effort and work, significant organizations pushed for Standard Time's passage including the American Association for the Advancement of Scenic, American Metrological Society, and American Society of Civil Engineers. Canadian Pacific's chief engineer, Sir Sanford Fleming, took an even bolder step, stating in 1879 that a similar system should be used worldwide. Finally, the American Railway Association, the industry's trade group at the time (which became the Association of American Railroads on October 12, 1934), adopted the proposal and it became effective on November 18, 1883. Dowd was recognized for his efforts by being awarded a lifetime pass on any railroad. In an ironic and cruel twist of fate, he was killed by a train at Saratoga, New York on November 12, 1904.Home › Railroad History › The 1870s