ADVANTAGES

It occurred to me that the very existence of railroad technology – even before actual construction – inspired westward expansion by promising a means of binding new territory to the Union. (The telegraph has to be part of it.) It is very difficult to asign motive to anyone, but I am convinced that there was essentially no interest in western expansion at the time of the . The negotiations were only for New Orleans and west Florida. The French threw in that country west of the Mississippi at the last hour. But by 1843 when settlers began moving to Oregon by the wagonload, this clearly had changed. (Texas fits in here, too, but there seems to have been a mixed bag of expectations – whether it was really American expansion, or merely emigration). It does make me wonder how much – if any – a role did the desire to secure optional railroad routes for a Pacific railroad play in the . Whitney's route was Great Lakes to Columbia River via South Pass – the only pass then believed practical then within the territory of the United States. Anyway, does this notion that the mere potential of the railroad opened [or played a previously unrecognized role in opening] the frontier deserve more research?
... we see a similar pattern in our own day. No sooner is the internet "invented" than peoplebegin to imagine that the internet will do away with libraries, and the telephone, and yield all other kinds of marvelous things. That is the kind of thing I'm wondering about in regard to railroads. We –railroad historians – spend a lot of time recording the development ofparticular technological features and the construction of miles of track, but what about the expectations that railroads inspired? and how were those expectations manifest in daily living (manifest by people who had never seen a train)?There is a story – perhaps more myth than true – that Leland Stanfordtold his seasick wife on their way to California that he would build her a railroad for her return journey. I wonder if people really went to California thinking they could ride a train home someday. (Indeed, many did just that, whether they imagined it would happen or not.)

—Wendell Huffman, 9/24/2004

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