Tracking the Federal Fingerprint
19th-century transcontinental corporate-government collaborations
If you listen to people talking about politics long enough, you are likely to hear that the federal government mildly stood by minding its own business until the 20th century when, fueled by activists, it grew (Progressive Era) and grew (New Deal) and grew (Great Society). All this growth transformed politics—and depending on your governing philosophy, that was for good or for ill.
However, the 19th-century federal government was far from a passive observer of enterprising Americans at work without the national government meddling. For The Classroom this week, I scratch the surface of the active federal government and how it shaped part of the West. Read on!
Taking Bearings is supported by readers. To support my research and encourage my writing, please subscribe and consider becoming a paid subscriber.
At Multiple Scales
Transcontinental railroads loom large in history.
I know this because I taught college students history for more than two decades and “transcontinental railroads” popped up as an exceptionally common term paper choice. Most of the efforts were forgettable. The scale of the railroads, I think, made them unwieldy for a semester-long project. But railroads mattered greatly to 19th-century America at all scales. They still furnish clear windows to the role of government, industry, and the land.
Overriding Public Interest
One of the first ways federal power supported transcontinental lines was its relationship with Indigenous nations and their lands. Again and again, the national government ignored territorial claims and/or abrogated its treaty promises, citing “the public interest.” Resistance (as well as adaptation) on the part of tribes colored this history, and the federal government deployed its usual strategies (e.g., military force, promises/broken promises, payments) to facilitate the resettling of the West.
From Stalemate to Action
By the midpoint of the 19th century, it was an article of faith that transcontinental railroads were necessary for economic and political reasons: they would fuel economic development and unite a continental nation. However, economic and political reasons also stalled them: corporations could not afford and would not invest in such a risky scheme while northerners and southerners could not agree on a route—or routes—of such a line(s). In the 1850s, Congress sent surveyors west to scout the best routes, but the political stalemate around slavery stalled action.
The Civil War eliminated the obstacle since southern states traitorously left the union and abandoned their seats in Congress. In 1862 and then again in 1864, Congress passed laws that President Abraham Lincoln signed to launch transcontinental railroads. The incentives the nation dangled to corporations were not minor.
Incentivizing the Railroads
In 1862, Congress granted the railroad corporations a 400-foot right-of-way along the route. For each mile of rail built, companies received 10 sections (each one a square mile of land) scattered in a checkerboard pattern across a 20-mile wide belt of land along the right-of-way. The land subsidies were meant to fund construction by both using resources along the route and selling land to fund it.1
Several assumptions supported this generosity. The first was that railroads would serve the public interest by promoting settlement and development and thus deserved public support. The second was that this could not be achieved without government subsidies. (Indeed, corporations signaled as much by not building the line without such generous terms.) The third was that once the line was constructed the value of the land would increase, so the federal government doubled the price of the land it retained in the checkerboard, thereby not losing money from its gift.
Despite the generosity, two years later, Congress adjusted and doubled the land gift—20 sections across a 40-mile belt. Even that was insufficient in some places. For the Northern Pacific route, Congress authorized 40 sections across a 80-mile belt in the states and 120-miles in territories. [Editorial Note: When I wrote this, I inadvertently doubled the grants; please cut those figures in half.] Theoretically, the railroad companies were required to sell its lands within three years, but they often sold to affiliate companies, or not at all, and received no penalties.
Sources vary, but one of the most thorough accounts puts the total acreage given to railroads at 131,230,258 acres, which would be the nation’s third largest state.2 The gift to the Northern Pacific Railroad itself approximated the size of New England.
When the federal government began retaining public land in reserve in perpetuity (e.g., in national forests), companies had the opportunity to swap out some of its land that was otherwise hemmed in. This allowed companies to acquired higher value land elsewhere. In Washington, for examples, the Northern Pacific swapped land in what became Mount Rainier National Park and grabbed better timberland.
Railroads often ended up selling to timber companies. In 1900, Weyerhaeuser purchased 900,000 acres from the Northern Pacific in Washington. The checkerboard pattern developed to support transcontinental railroad construction remained across the West, increasingly in the hands of timber companies.
Today, from high ridges or airplanes, you can see the evidence of this checkerboard pattern where clearcuts show a clear legacy of this. These are important reminders of legacies more than a century and a half in the making; decisions made generations ago continue to affect the landscape.
Another story about local food banks and local farmers came out this week. I’m proud of the story and think the issue is important, so I hope you’ll click the link and read. The story tells how a state grant is helping local farmers connect with local people experiencing food insecurity.
As always, you can find my books, and books where some of my work is included, at my Bookshop affiliate page (where, if you order, I get a small benefit).
Taking Bearings Next Week
I’m back for The Field Trip next week, wondering if the weather will make for an enjoyable outing. Stay tuned!
I’m neglecting the numerous financial benefits also included in the legislation.
Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 24.