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Setting the Stage


For about 100 years, beginning in the mid-19th century, trains were the primary means of transportation for people and freight. The railroad industry played an integral part in the shaping of the American landscape, in the development and history of towns along its routes, and in the lives of people who were employed by it, traveled on trains, or whose work and business were associated with it. The railroad has long been a popular topic for American literature and music, and its role in cultural, economic, and political history continues as a subject of serious scholarship.

England developed the first railroads in the 1820s. By the 1830s businessmen, politicians, engineers, and speculators along the Atlantic coast of the U.S. were already eagerly promoting this new form of transportation. Two factors primarily determined where the tracks would be built. Geography was the first: rail lines followed, whenever possible, traditional passages over difficult terrain first used by American Indians and later by trappers and settlers. The location of roads and waterways which could transport goods to and from rail lines also affected where stations would be established. The second factor centered on what historians refer to as "boosterism." Towns competed fiercely with each other as they tried to draw the railroad toward them. First, they often bought stock in a railroad to encourage it to lay its tracks through their area; later they helped lines that wanted to expand. Cities also actively promoted themselves as centers for industry. By stimulating local business they would increase traffic and therefore profits for the railroad. Assisting the railroads was good business for local towns. Trains brought employment, both directly and through businesses dependent on transportation connections.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, illustrates the importance of both factors. Its location--on the Tennessee River, at a natural break where the Allegheny and Cumberland ranges converged--made it an appealing site. By laying their tracks through Chattanooga, the emerging rail industries hoped to reach and dominate lucrative markets west of the mountains. The city built on these advantages by presenting itself to potential residents and investors, particularly after the Civil War, as an ideal place to live and work.

 

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