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Post-Civil War Railroad Expansion: Crossing the Continent


In the wake of the success of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, other ventures were launched that required huge subsidies and land grants like their predecessors. The federal government's willingness to fund private companies' exploits marked a radical change of philosophy. Construction of many lines was temporarily halted following the Panic of 1873, but railroad service later penetrated all regions of the country, including the following companies:

  • Northern Pacific Railroad Co. The Northern Pacific was granted a charter by Congress in 1864, which provided the private company with huge subsidies. Construction did not begin until 1870. The line followed the long proposed northern route, eventually connecting Lake Superior to Puget Sound. The NP was originally controlled by Jay Cooke, but the financier's failure during the Panic of 1873 slowed progress. Henry Villard reinvigorated the project in the 1880s, and the final link over Stampede Pass in the Washington Cascades was completed in 1887.

    Following the turn of the century, a titanic struggle developed over control of the Northern Pacific, pitting James J. Hill and J.P. Morgan against E.H. Harriman. Creation of the Northern Securities Company ended the financial warfare.

  • Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The Santa Fe connected the heartland wheat belt areas with the Southern Pacific at Deming (New Mexico Territory) and El Paso. Interestingly, the town of Santa Fe was not included on the main line, having been outbid for that right by Albuquerque.
  • Texas Pacific. The Texas Pacific ran from Shreveport through Dallas and Fort Worth to intersect with the Southern Pacific in western Texas
  • Southern Pacific. In 1865, the Southern Pacific began its extension across the lower tier of states by purchasing existing lines and constructing new mileage where necessary. New Orleans was linked directly with California, which made use of the lands acquired in the Gadsden Purchase. The Southern Pacific pushed northward to San Francisco and later into the Northwest. The line survived the depression of the 1870s thanks to heavy demand for its services and lack of direct competition. In 1884, the SP merged administratively with the Central Pacific through the cooperation of railroad giants Leland Stanford and C.P Huntington. In 1901, the railroad became part of the empire of E.H. Harriman.

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