Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


In the last third of the nineteenth century railroads transformed the Great Plains of North America from a sparsely populated, primarily Native American territory to the agricultural heartland of both the United States and Canada.

The post–Civil War period saw the first extension of standard gage tracks across the American Great Plains with the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad, a vital component of the first transcontinental line, completed in May 1869. At that time the Plains were perceived as space to cross as expeditiously as possible, linking the East Coast with the Pacific Coast. The Plains terrain, gradually sloping west to east, and the broad, flat river valleys permitted relatively easy construction and rapid expansion of the rail network. Although extractive and exploitative economic activities had been previously conducted in the Great Plains (for example, fur trading, bison hunting, cattle ranching, and mining), the region was not extensively settled and developed by European Americans until the latter third of the nineteenth century, when railroads made possible the farmers' advance into the area. While railroads made farming expansion onto the Plains possible, high freight rates, caused in part by lack of concern for farmers' well-being but also by the high cost of shipping often empty cars to a sparsely populated region to be filled with agricultural products, led to protest movements, most notably the Grange and the Farmers Alliance, both of which were successful, to a degree, in achieving government regulation of railroads by the 1870s and 1880s.

As an instrument of development, railroads transformed the Great Plains into an integrated part of both the United States and Canada by carrying passengers, including inbound immigrants, and by hauling agricultural products out and building materials in. After the Union Pacific, more than a dozen other railroads laid tracks across the Plains, including the Southern Pacific and the Northern Pacific. They began aggressively to articulate their networks in an effort to capture service territory. Although their progress was interrupted by financial panics and other temporary setbacks, the Great Plains had been laced together with ribbons of steel by the late nineteenth century. Later, similar development occurred in Canada. The first line to cross the Canadian Great Plains was the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885. Other railroad companies followed. Eventually the northern section of the Plains would have a rail pattern similar to that of its southern neighbor.

Thus, a railroad landscape, as a feature of a larger cultural landscape, came into existence. As the agricultural settlement pattern became fixed upon the Great Plains railroad companies continued to build thousands of miles of secondary and branch lines on both sides of the international border. The zenith of Plains railroad development occurred in the early 1920s, when approximately 42,000 miles of track crisscrossed the region.

Railroads greatly influenced Great Plains urban patterns. Railroad officials located and founded the majority of the region's towns and cities. The distance between the towns was generally about eight to ten miles, which was considered a reasonable hauling distance for farm products, especially small grains. Elevator capacity of about 30,000 bushels necessitated a town for every one or two townships. Consequently, the semihumid eastern Great Plains developed a fairly dense urban settlement pattern (too dense, in fact, and many of the towns eventually failed). The railroads also platted out the towns, generally in a T form, with the Main Street perpendicular to the tracks and the elevator, lumberyard, and other shipping facilities on the other side. Areas west of the 100th meridian generally exhibited a more dispersed pattern, due to their unsuitability for traditional farming techniques. Other railroad sites were set up as locomotive watering and repair points, division o.ces, and bridging locations on major rivers. The only European American sites that preceded railroad towns in the Great Plains were riverboat ports, fur-trading posts, forts, mining camps, and prerailroad settlements within reach of the Missouri River in territorial Kansas, Nebraska, and Dakota.

After World War II and especially since the 1960s, three themes have characterized railroading in the Great Plains. The first is abandonment of unprofitable branch and secondary lines. Since the 1950s in excess of 8,000 miles of track have been torn up, leaving many Plains towns without rail service (and bikers and hikers richly endowed with trails that cut diagonally across the otherwise right-angled grid of the Plains landscape). South Dakota, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma have each lost more than 1,000 miles of track; only Wyoming has gained, the result of expansion in the coal-rich Powder River Basin. Second, the number of rail carriers has declined through numerous consolidations and mergers. The Great Plains is crossed by only a handful of Class A (major carriers) railroads today. A number of regional and subregional freight lines (short lines) have emerged from the infrastructures of the defunct carriers, some of which are successful financially. State railroad authorities have purchased trackage in an effort to maintain vital services such as the delivery of coal to large-scale electric power generating stations. Third, some railroads operating in the region have transformed themselves into long-haul bulk carriers, with unit coal and grain trains that often consist of more than 100 railcars. Tonnage has been increasing as the Class A railroads continue to haul greater and greater amounts of raw materials that are either produced in the Great Plains (in the Wyoming coal fields, for example) or transported across them. Double tracks support several high-volume routes that cross the Central Great Plains, and single track in both the Northern and Southern Plains is used to capacity. Also, several Plains rail corridors function as "dry canals" for the transcontinental movement of trains hauling only ship container cargoes.

The belief that the Great Plains was a barrier to be crossed in an east-west direction, coupled with separate national strategies to connect East with West, resulted in very little articulation of the U.S. and Canadian railroad networks across the international border. North-south connections were not well developed, especially on the U.S. side, although a plan was promoted before World War I to connect Winnipeg, Manitoba, to Galveston, Texas, via the eastern Plains. The only major connection, a Canadian Pacific Railway route, traces a diagonal line across the Northern Great Plains from Saskatchewan through Minnesota. Six passenger corridors traverse the Plains, operated today by the Amtrak (U.S.) and Via Rail (Canadian) systems. The passage is essentially east-west across the region with only one north-south line on the southeastern Plains periphery. Relatively little passenger tra.c is generated at Plains station stops, because few large cities are located along the respective routes.

The efficiency and economics of bulk cargo movement as well as the lesser environmental impacts of railroads compared to trucks on roads and highways continue to promote the use of railroads. A distinctive Great Plains railroad geography manifests itself across the region in the general settlement fabric and in the spectacular coalescence of lines at major towns. Sounds of diesel locomotive horns and rushing freight trains moving from horizon to horizon will continue to reverberate across the Plains into the foreseeable future.

See also ARCHITECTURE: Railroad Depots / CITIES AND TOWNS: T-Towns / PROTEST AND DISSENT: Farmers Alliance; Grange.

Donald J. Berg South Dakota State University

Hudson, John C. Plains Country Towns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Kirby, Russell S. "Nineteenth-Century Patterns of Railroad Development on the Great Plains." Great Plains Quarterly 3 (1983): 156–70. Vance, James E., Jr. The North American Railroad: Its Origin, Evolution, and Geography. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

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