The transcontinental railroad remade the American West. Consider first that the railroad, any railroad, was by nature a form of transportation significantly more independent of geography than anything that had preceded it. It was not tied to preexisting waterways like the steamboat, and given its relative speed, it could cross great waterless stretches of plain or desert with ease compared to man or pack animal. As the technology improved (which it did continuously throughout the mid-1800s), railroads developed the capacity to span rivers and gorges, climb hills, and tunnel through mountains. Where they could not surmount the natural terrain, they changed it; the route of the transcontinental railroad was a wonder of cuts, fills, tunnels, and bridges. It was—and remains—a marvel of planning and construction. When the highway route across the West was built decades later, it followed the path broken by the rail.
Of course, breaking that path and laying the track required tremendous resources. In the Pacific Railroad Bill of 1862, the federal government not only granted huge amounts of land to the railroad companies (in alternating sections along the track), it also ceded the resources on the route. As with the land, trackside timber, water, and minerals could be extracted, processed, or sold as the railroads saw fit. This had huge environmental consequences. By the late 1860s, the California State Board of Agriculture estimated that one-third of the state's forests had already disappeared, and much of that had gone to the railroads (the rest went largely to mining).17
The government's land grants assured that with the railroads would come settlement. The process of westward migration had gotten a jumpstart with the discovery of California gold in 1848 and picked up again with the Homestead Act of 1862, which deeded a tract of land to just about anyone who claimed one and would supposedly improve upon it. Frontier settlement received a huge boost as the railroads sold off acres of their grants along the route. There was a sense that the railroad brought with it civilization, prosperity, and even better weather. Union Pacific's chief engineer claimed that a rain belt followed the tracks westward at a rate of eight miles per year.18 Settlers who streamed into the Great Plains region generally found otherwise, but a substantial amount of land was sold, settled, and cultivated just the same.
Few who purchased land gave much thought to its previous inhabitants, the many Native American tribes collectively called the Plains Indians, most of whom would be starved, killed, or driven onto reservations as white America swept west of the Mississippi and then the Missouri River.
Many of the changes in the land that began with the incursion of the railroad continued as the Plains changed from Native to white lands. The once prodigious buffalo herds had been hunted to near extinction for their valuable hides (which were a marketable commodity back east) or mere sport, as men shot them indiscriminately from the windows of passing trains and left the carcasses to rot. By 1900, the buffalo had all but vanished. Vast acreage was broken by the plow and put into cultivation. And while the land was made to produce, the seeds of what would be known as the Dust Bowl—the twentieth century ecological disaster in which much of the Plains topsoil blew away in a prolonged drought—were being sown.
Told this way, the transcontinental railroad seems like nothing so much as a harbinger of environmental decline. While this may be true in part, there is another way of looking at the story, particularly in light of America's twentieth-century transportation history. Consider the environmental legacy of the railroad as it compares with the impact of its successor, the automobile, and consider the physical presence of the tracks themselves. Railroads carve a comparatively narrow path through the land and have stops spaced in a way that suggests discreet settlement rather than sprawl. And the railroad is a form of mass transit, of course, which one might argue not only uses resources more efficiently but also creates a different experience of overland travel.
Such was the case with the transcontinental railroad, particularly the portion laid by the Central Pacific. The mountain journey through the Sierra Nevada was a singular experience for riders. They marveled at the land and at the ingenuity of the men who had managed to lay track across it. The railroad companies were quick to pick up on the fact that spectacular sights and destinations on the rail were good for business. Not only did they begin to actively pitch the Pacific railroad as a great way to see and experience the grandeur of the West, they also understood that the preservation of that grandeur was in their best interest. So it was that the railroads following the first transcontinental line would become supporters of the fledging national park system and enthusiastic operators of some of the most scenic trips in the country.
Now that we are decades into the reign of the American automobile, the ecological footprint of the railroad—while certainly significant—appears quaint by comparison. And given that the environmental impact of the automotive age continues to grow, the turn away from trains as a dominant mode of passenger transportation will surely loom far larger as a decisive moment in environmental history than the construction of the entire rail system.