Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Rail lines have played a crucial role in the development of the Plains. After the Civil War, rail lines such as the Canadian Pacific Railway, Union Pacific Railroad, and Northern Pacific Railway accepted huge gifts of land to subsidize railroad construction and operations across the American Plains and Canadian Prairies. Leaders in both countries contended that whoever controlled access across this region would control the Pacific Coast.

The construction of railroads in the Plains and Prairies differed from that in eastern North America in that it preceded the settlement of the land. These lines, rather than the communities themselves, shaped the architecture, layout, and placement of towns. In the United States, federal, state, and local governments as well as individuals gave railroad companies gifts of land to build their lines through the Plains. Railroads received an estimated 185 million acres of land from these sources. The largest contributor by far was the federal government, which made the grants directly to the companies or through state government intermediaries. Under grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines, the federal government offered twenty square miles of land for each mile of track laid in territories and ten square miles of land for each mile of track laid in states. The land grants were in alternate sections, next to government reserved lands, and laid out in a checkerboard pattern. The government reserved lands were in escrow and could not be claimed by homesteaders until the railroads received their full shares. In Canada, railways received more than 38 million acres of land. Most went to the Canadian Pacific line.

During construction and afterward, critics debated whether the land grant was a reasonable subsidy or an opportunity to plunder the landed wealth of the Prairies and Plains. Apologists for the railroad grants admit that the legislation appropriating the lands was often poorly drawn and contradicted land settlement plans. However, they note that building and running a railroad was an expensive and unstable business. Land grants, they write, offered companies immediate revenues and the means to meet future capital costs. The rail lines that bound the Atlantic and Pacific together certainly would not have been constructed so early without the subsidies. Especially in the United States, no other method to promote railroads in the Plains was politically possible.

Critics of the railroad land grants in the U.S. Plains point out that the gifts made railroads the "proprietors of the West." While they were in escrow, railroads did not pay taxes. Worse, they effectively blocked settlement within the checkerboard patterns. For example, the Northern Pacific reserved a 120-mile swath of land between Minnesota and Puget Sound that was withheld from settlement.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: Land Laws and Settlement.

Michael J. Grant Lincoln, Nebraska

Gates, Paul W. Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 1854–1890. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1954.

Hedges, James B. The Federal Railway Land Subsidy Policy of Canada. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934.

Mercer, Lloyd J. Railroads and Land Grant Policy: A Study in Government Intervention. New York: Academic Press, 1982.

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