Second Industrial Revolution: The American Railroad System

Hello everyone! In today’s lesson, we’re going to be discussing how the industrial revolution was accelerated by the American railroad system.

Just in case you slept through the first Industrial Revolution, let me give you a brief recap. The First Industrial Revolution began in Britain and then spread to various countries, including America. It changed the economy from a largely agricultural one to one with mechanized manufacturing. The steam engine, spinning jenny, locomotive, and telegraph were invented during this period.

The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the Technological Revolution, began in 1870, five years after the end of the American Civil War, and lasted until 1914.

So what were some of the main causes of the Second Industrial Revolution?

Well, there was:

  1. The availability of natural resources such as coal, iron, and oil
  2. A large labor pool (especially as urban populations grew because of immigration)
  3. Accessibility of electricity and petroleum
  4. Railroads (and other new transportation methods)
  5. Various inventions and innovations

For the purpose of this video, we’ll focus on the railroads.

Thanks to Andrew Carnegie and the Bessemer process, the cost and time required to produce steel dropped significantly. With rail now cheaper than ever, companies were able to lay more track and expand the railway system.

Of course, creating and laying more and more track required more and more workers. Immigration played a large role in this as Chinese and Irish immigrants became a significant part of the railroad workforce.

The railroad became a way for companies to ship to each other from across the country, transport raw materials to factories, and send final products to consumers.

Not only did the railway system grow due to the flourishing businesses, but corporations expanded as well due to the growth of the railway system. With the help of inventions like the telegraph, which reported the location of trains to avoid accidents, the boom of the railway system proved to be beneficial for the economy and workforce.

Another factor to the advancement of railroad-related businesses was the lack of Federal regulation, also known as a laissez-faire policy.

The U.S. government not only had a hands-off approach when it came to regulation, but they also subsidized all the railroads. Sounds like a great day to be a railroad tycoon, right?

Well, unfortunately, the working conditions on the railroads were not ideal. Poor lighting and fire hazards were commonplace. Heavy amounts of dust attributed to breathing problems and, in some cases, disease.

Tools were not regulated and did not come with “safety features”. Because of this, many workers lost fingers and even entire limbs!

Workers were expected to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. If they could not meet this demand, whether due to exhaustion or sickness, they were fired.

As if that wasn’t enough, there were several other hardships that came along. During the Panic of 1873, which led to an economic depression, rail expansion diminished since the country was in financial crisis. This resulted in many railways going bankrupt, while others had to lay off workers or reduce wages. Of course, the workers weren’t happy about this, so they formed labor unions and went on strike.

The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, in response to wage cuts, became violent, but ended after about a month and a half. Although the strike was unsuccessful in getting workers’ wages back to where they once were, workers began to see the potential in using them as means for fighting for their rights, and would utilize them in future protests. Some were not successful, while others were.

Take for example the Pullman Strike of 1894. Railroad workers were upset that the company reduced wages, but would not lower the rent of the place they were required to live in. As a result, workers began leaving their jobs by the thousands, causing traffic to back up on over 20 lines across the country. Following an outbreak of deadly violence from the strikers, the strike eventually dwindled and rail traffic resumed.

The workers were significant, indeed, but there were several major players when it came to building and expanding railroads. For example, Cornelius Vanderbilt and his son William were known for acquiring and expanding upon existing railroads. Although the pair became tycoons in this industry, they did so by requiring their workers to work long hours, with little compensation.

Jason “Jay” Gould began his railroad career by purchasing stock in small railways. He later drastically increased his wealth by taking control of existing railways, using ruthless and unscrupulous business practices. He was known as one of the leading robber barons.

On the contrary, James J. Hill is recognized as one who expanded railways using conservative methods, such as establishing rails in unpopulated areas. At first, many thought he was foolish for working this way, but in the end, it worked to his financial advantage. Perhaps slow and steady still can win the race.

By 1880, with the exception of the agricultural industry, the railroad industry was the United States’ largest employer. In the 1880s, 75,000 miles of track was laid in the U.S., which is the largest amount in world history.

With all the competition among railways, some owners became creative in ways to attract and retain business. Some went so far as to offer illegal refunds to their customers who brought in big business. They also charged more in remote areas where customers didn’t have many options.

This triggered large protests by farmers in the west, and led to the passing of the Granger Laws, which made railroad pricing more favorable to those in remote areas.

In Illinois, although the Granger Law was originally upheld, it was later determined that this law was beyond the authority of the state and was overturned. The federal government then stepped in and passed the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which required that railroad companies give the government a list of the rates they charge companies. They were also forbidden from changing their rates depending on the length of the haul.

Now, time for a short quiz to make sure you were paying attention. Ready?

Number 1. How many years after the American Civil War did the second Industrial Revolution begin?

The correct answer for question number 1 is five.

Number 2. In the 1880s, how many miles of railroad track were laid in the U.S.?

The correct answer for question number 2 is 75,000.

Number 3. According to this video, who was known as one of the leading robber barons?

The correct answer for question number 3 is Jason “Jay” Gould.

Did you answer all the questions correctly? If you did, woo-hoo to you! If not, no problem. Take a second look at this video to refresh yourself.

Thank you for watching and happy studying!



by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: September 23, 2021