One of my favorite classes in college, Locational Geography, explained why cities are where they are. For example, when the European explorers came to North America by ship, they established their trading posts and colonies along rivers which were the highways of their day. Looking at a map you can see major east coast cities in harbors and then upstream a bit to what is called the fall line, the place where there the tides end at a waterfall. The town where I grew up in New Jersey, New Brunswick, is located just downstream of a small waterfall.
Roads followed animal tracks and the first National Highway, now U.S. Route 40, extended into Ohio and then into Illinois. This was the first roads project approved by Congress and it was funded to help provide an easier pathway to the West.
Westward expansion continued into Texas in the early 1800s and the rivers were used by people who could afford the fare. The rest of the pioneers walked. And so it continued. The Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail and many parallel routes lead people west. Most people walked the thousands of miles and it took months and months to cover the distance we have just driven in a few days. No air conditioning and no 3G networks to ease travel in that time.
In the 1830s, however, transportation systems began to change with the development of the railroad. Huntington, West Virginia, where I have lived the past 6 years, was founded by Collis P. Huntington, the owner of the C&O Railroad. The railroad’s terminus on the Ohio River provided a short cut to the West and goods could be shipped faster than relying on the roads through the Appalachian Mountains and then to the rivers and then on to Chicago and the Great Lakes.
In the early 1860s Collis P. Huntington served as second fiddle to Leland Stamford and disagreed with his boss when the Central Pacific started its race east to join the Union Pacific’s race west. Huntington looked at the Sierra Nevada and said the mountains were too big an obstacle to construct a rail line. But Stamford made the decision and Chinese crews were brought in. Tunnels were dug by hand, often inching no more than a few feet through the rock each day.
Meanwhile, the Union Pacific’s construction teams were laying up to 10 miles of track a day across the prairie. The race was on. The first company to get to Ogden, Utah would own the right to the lucrative Salt Lake basin traffic. Finally, as the right-of-way crews worked on parallel lines for miles while the bigwigs bickered, the decision to have the lines meet was made.
The Golden Spike National Monument at Promontory, Utah memorializes not only that single last spike but a massive change in the transportation system of the United States and the world. This huge project, delayed during the years of the Civil War, finally climaxed May10, 1869. From that point on settlers to the West could opt to ride the train. From that point on goods could travel coast to coast in a matter of days instead of months by ship around South America. The transcontinental rail connection in the 19th Century was what the Internet has been to the 20th Century: the world became a smaller place.