The following notes will help you prepare for questions about the development of the railroad on the AP U.S. History Exam.

  • The development of the railroad system changed American cultural and economy unlike anything before it. The ability to travel from coast to coast permitted the exchange of people, goods, and ideas in a manner that was faster and cheaper than ever before. While the railroad would meet its demise as king of the transportation system when Americans became enamored with automobiles in the 20th century, the railroad transformed the U.S. in the 19th century.

  • Despite the triumphs, the rise of the railroad was not without controversy. Central to that was increased conflict with Native Americans, who were forced off of the land they had held for centuries to make room for the railroad system.

Central Pacific Railroad : began in Sacramento, California and joined with the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869, creating the nation's first transcontinental railroad; most of the labor was Chinese immigrants

Credit Mobilier Scandal : company formed by stockholders of the Union Pacific, who then contracted with the company to build the railroad

"hell on wheels" : wild, often temporary towns that sprung up along the railroad construction sites

Interstate Commerce Act : federal law passed in 1887 to prevent railroads from becoming monopolies; required that shipping rates be made public and prohibited price discrimination

Munn v. Illinois : Supreme Court case that ruled in 1887 that states have the authority to regulate some business practices, including those of railroads

Pacific Railway Act : signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 that authorized the Central Pacific and Union Pacific to build the railroads and telegraph lines that would complete a transatlantic railway system

Pawnee Indians : friendly Native American tribe hired by the Union Pacific to guard the construction crews from attack from other tribes

Promontory Point, Utah : the point at which the Central Pacific and Union Pacific joined, completing the transatlantic railroad

Union Pacific Railroad : began in Omaha, Nebraska and joined with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869, forming the transcontinental railroad


Grenville Dodge : chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad

Thomas Durant : vice-president of the Union Pacific Railroad; resorted to unethical business practices to make profits

Jay Gould : corrupt railroad executive; gave bribes and manipulated stock for his own profit

Theodore Judah: engineer who helped determine a route through the Sierra Nevada mountains

Cornelius Vanderbilt : self-made millionaire in the shipping business who put his profits into the railroads; financed the building of Grand Central Terminal

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AP US History Notes
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