When the first transcontinental railroad was completed in the spring of 1869, it was celebrated as a marvel of engineering and an invaluable new link between people and places. The outposts of the American West were connected to the population centers back east. People and goods could flow freely and quickly across the continent, as the overland journey had been reduced from one measured in months to one measured in mere days. Many contemporary observers remarked that the country seemed to grow smaller as it became better connected—a very shrewd observation.
A smaller number of observers also recognized that the transcontinental railroad linked not only people and places but also moments in history. The construction of the railroad to the Pacific represented, if not a turning point in the country's history, at least an unmistakable sign that major changes were underway.
Think of the eras linked by the building of the famed railroad. As the history books would put it, the Civil War gives way to Gilded Age America. Ages of sparse and sporadic settlement west of the Mississippi give way to an age of rapid expansion. Lands of the Plains Indians and the buffalo become lands of white settlers and homesteaders. The railroad connects a time when the West had been a largely untouched wilderness to a time of intensive cultivation and resource extraction. Early capitalism becomes industrial capitalism. An era of vigorously limited government opens to one in which the federal government expands into business as both a supporter and a regulator. Quite clearly, the America in which the transcontinental lines began construction was not the same as the one that was bound together—east to west, past to future—in 1869.
But the construction of the transcontinental railroad didn't simply occur alongside these epochal changes; it often drove them. The land and people of the Plains and the West changed as an effect of the railroad's incursion. Similarly, the economic and organizational strategies that would characterize late-nineteenth century American business and industry were, to a large extent, strategies pioneered in building and funding the railroad. The transcontinental railroad was a powerful force (and symbol) of a kind of change that most contemporary observers recognized as progress. While the changes caused by such a transformative force couldn't always be predicted, one thing was certain: those changes would be sweeping. And indeed they were.