Starting in the 1830s, the development of railroad networks fueled the economic growth of Pennsylvania and shaped the geography of the state as we know it today. Steam locomotives were a significant advancement in transportation technology during the Industrial Revolution that provided a faster, more powerful, and more reliable means of transporting manufactured goods, raw materials, and passengers. Pennsylvania became a hub for the railroad industry because of its abundance of natural resources like timber, coal, and iron. The expansion of railroad networks in the state made Pennsylvania’s raw materials and products more accessible to far-away markets (Black & Sleber, 2004; Cupper, Hardy, & Brett, n.d.).
The Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR), established in 1846, was one of the most dominant companies in the nation’s railroad industry and was known as the “Standard Railroad of the World” (Cupper, Hardy, & Brett, n.d.). The PRR’s corporate headquarters were in Philadelphia but conducted most of its research, manufacturing, and repair operations in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a town built for the purpose of supporting the company (McNitt, 2004, p. 14). One of the PRR’s greatest successes was the completion of the Horseshoe Curve in 1854 near Altoona, which linked Philadelphia to Pittsburgh through the Allegheny Mountains. This engineering marvel shortened the trip between the two cities from 3.5 days to 13 hours (Cupper, 2004, pp. 20-21). In 1880, the PRR was the largest corporation in the United States. By the 1920s, it ran 6,700 trains a day and carried 10% of all freight and 20% of all passengers in the United States (Cupper, Hardy, & Brett, n.d.).
PRR was not immune, however, to the labor unrest that arose concurrently with the growth of industry in the United States. The railroad industry in Pennsylvania attracted many immigrant laborers who often worked in hazardous conditions for low wages (Mcnitt, 2004, p. 16). One of the most violent examples of labor unrest was the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the first nationwide strike in the United States. Pittsburgh saw riots, violent clashes between protesters and the National Guard, and massive destruction of property including the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Union Depot (Cupper, Hardy, & Brett, n.d.).
While the PRR went bankrupt in the 1960s with the rise of highways and an ill-fated merger with the New York Central Railroad (Mcnitt, 2004, p. 18), the PRR left a legacy that can still be felt today. Major passenger train stations in Baltimore, New York City, and Newark still bear the name “Penn Station” as they were originally built by the PRR. 30th Street Station in Philadelphia and Union Station in Pittsburgh were also built by the PRR (Jaffe, 2013). Today’s transit companies like Amtrak rely on these stations and other parts of the PRR’s architecture for their operations. The Railroaders Memorial Museum and Horseshoe Curve National Historic Landmark in Altoona, PA and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg, PA are just a few examples of how the contributions of the railroad industry continues to be commemorated in Pennsylvania.
Black, B., & Sleber, P. (2004). Getting a Move On: Transportation Revolutions in Altoona. Pennsylvania Legacies, 4(1), 6-11. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27764915
Cupper, D., Hardy III, C., and Brett, P. (n.d.) The Railroad in Pennsylvania. Retrieved March 18, 2020 from https://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1-9-10&chapter=0
Cupper, D. (2004). Horseshoe Curve: An Engineering and Historic Landmark. Pennsylvania Legacies, 4(1), 19-24. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27764920
Jaffe, E. (2013). Why Are There Still So Many Train Stations Named Penn Station? City Lab. Retrieved March 23, 2020 from https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2013/04/why-are-so-many-urban-train-stations-named-penn-station/5178/.
McNitt, R. (2004). Altoona: Life and Labor in a Railroad City. Pennsylvania Legacies, 4(1), 13-18. Retrieved March 18, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/27764917
This primary source set may be best incorporated into a unit on the Industrial Revolution in a secondary level United States History class. Railroads in Pennsylvania provide a local and accessible entry point into the Industrial Revolution because the majority of students likely have experience with railroad travel. In addition, there are railroad landmarks in many Pennsylvania cities and towns. The primary sources in this set address themes pertinent to the Industrial Revolution such as technological advancements, economic growth, and the impact on labor. This primary source set may be best suited for students who already have some background on local history, as some discussion questions pertain to their location.
This set can be tailored to fit grades 9-12.
Secondary Standards 9-12, Historical Analysis and Skills Development
8.1.12.A. Evaluate patterns of continuity and rates of change over time, applying context of events.
8.1.12.B. Evaluate the interpretation of historical events and sources, considering the use of fact versus opinion, multiple perspectives, and cause and effect relationships.
Secondary Standards 9-12, Pennsylvania History
8.2.12.A. Evaluate the role groups and individuals from Pennsylvania played in the social, political, cultural, and economic development of the US and the world.
8.2.12.C. Evaluate continuity and change in Pennsylvania are interrelated to the US and the world. • Belief systems and religions • Commerce and industry • Technology • Politics and government • Physical and human geography • Social organizations
8.2.12.D. Evaluate how conflict and cooperation among groups and organizations in Pennsylvania have influenced the growth and development of the US and the world. • Ethnicity and race • Working conditions • Immigration • Military conflict • Economic stability
Secondary Standards 9-12, United States History
8.3.12.A. Evaluate the role groups and individuals from the U.S. played in the social, political, cultural, and economic development of the world.
8.3.12.C. Evaluate how continuity and change in U.S. history are interrelated with the world. • Belief systems and religions • Commerce and industry • Technology • Politics and government • Physical and human geography • Social organizations
8.3.12.D. Evaluate how conflict and cooperation among groups and organizations in the U.S. have influenced the growth and development of the world. • Ethnicity and race • Working conditions • Immigration • Military conflict • Economic stability
Suggested Excerpts for Items 1-2
- Geographic importance of Pennsylvania – p. 20
- Completion of Pennsylvania Railroad – p. 26
- Pennsylvania Railroad during the Civil War – pp. 30-31
- Pennsylvania Railroad’s Development of Altoona – pp. 154-157
- Maps of Pennsylvania Railroad lines in Pennsylvania and surrounding region – pp. 288-289
- Statement No. 9: Statement of Monthly Passenger Receipts from Each Pennsylvania Railroad Station – p. 102
- Statement No. 10: Annual Statement of Number of Passengers from Each Station – p. 104
- General Statement of Freight Sent from Each Station – p. 112
- Statement No. 13: Weight in Pounds Sent from and Received at Each Station – p. 114
- Statement No. 15: Report of Through Tonnage of Articles Sent From and Received at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – p. 100
**Please note the pages in this document are inconsistently numbered. Our page numbers refer to the number provided in the document navigator.**
Consider the sourcing and context of the primary source documents before addressing the following questions. Teachers are encouraged to adapt these questions to fit your lesson plan objectives.
- How did the growth of railroads contribute to the economic expansion of Pennsylvania? (Sources #1-4)
- From the maps in Source #1 (pp. 288-289), what do you notice about the locations of Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s rail lines?
- From Sources #1 (pp. 288-289) and #2 (pp. 102, 104, 112, 114), which cities seem to be the most important from the perspective of a railroad company? Why might this be the case?
- From Source #2 (Statement No. 15, p. 100), what do you notice about the items that were shipped by railroad? What types of items were transported in the greatest quantities? Why do you think this is the case?
- What other modes of transportation were used to transport products before railroads? What were the benefits of using railroads to transport products compared to other modes of transportation? How did this help businesses?
- From Source #2 (pp. 102, 104, 112, 114), compare which stations had the greatest amount of passenger travel with the stations that had the greatest amount of freight cargo. Why do you think they are similar or different?
- Source #3 depicts the Horseshoe Curve, which was a section of track constructed by the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in 1854 that reduced travel time through the Allegheny Mountains between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh from 3.5 days to 13 hours. Why might this have been important? Refer to Source #1 (p. 20 and maps on p. 288-289) for ideas.
- From Source #4, how did railroads benefit industries in Pennsylvania like the steel industry? What other industries might have benefitted from the railroads?
- How did the Pennsylvania Railroad Company impact cities? (Sources #1, 2, and 5)
- Where have you noticed railroad infrastructure in your city? For example, train stations, railroad tracks, bridges, etc.
- Look over Source #5. Find a photograph of a location that is close to your city/town and use Google Earth to find an image of how this area looks today. Compare/contrast how it looks today versus in the photograph.
- Read Source #1 pp. 154-157. Why was Altoona important to the Pennsylvania Railroad Company? How did the Pennsylvania Railroad Company impact Altoona?
- From Source #1 (pp. 288-289), locate your city on the map. How did the railroad system connect your city to other locations?
- From Source #2 (pp. 102, 104, 112, 114), locate your city on charts with passenger and freight cargo data. How does the data for your town compare to other stations? Why do you think this is the case?
- Who were railroad laborers and what was life like for them? (Sources #6-10)
- How did immigration contribute to the development of the railroad industry?
- What was main argument in Congressman Burke’s speech in Source #9?
- Who produced Source #10 and why? (p. 1)
- From Source #10, how did the Pennsylvania Railroad try to ease labor concerns?
- How did immigration contribute to the development of the railroad industry? (Teachers may wish to incorporate the additional resource “Altoona: Life and Labor in a Railroad City” (McNitt, 2004) or other sources as part of a larger lesson on immigration and labor.)
- Imagine what the next advancement in transportation technology will be. How might this technology impact the ways people work and live? How might this technology impact the economy?
- Use your understanding of how railroads changed life in America to support your response.
- How did the growth of railroads contribute to the economic expansion of Pennsylvania? (Sources #1-4)
Local Landmarks: Small groups will research local landmarks related to railroads from their city and/or nearby area. (Teachers may provide suggestions based on their location or allow students to conduct independent research.) Students can utilize the primary source set as well as outside research to learn about the history of that landmark and how it represents the impact of railroads on their city/town. Teachers may also choose to incorporate oral histories from local individuals who have experience working for the railroad industry. Students may prepare materials such as a poster or Powerpoint to teach the class about their landmark.
- Alternatively, should no local landmarks exist, students may research the history of the railroad industry in their town and propose the construction of a monument or other landmark to commemorate the impact of the railroad industry on their town.
Additional Resources for Research
Black, B., & Sleber, P. (2004). Getting a Move On: Transportation Revolutions in Altoona. Pennsylvania Legacies, 4(1), 6-11. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/27764915
McNitt, R. (2004). Altoona: Life and Labor in a Railroad City. Pennsylvania Legacies, 4(1), 13-18. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/27764917
Orr, J. W. (2005). Set Up Running: The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman. Penn State University Press: State College, Pennsylvania.
Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania Virtual Tours
Smithsonian National Museum of American HIstory (n.d.). America on the Move. Retrieved from https://americanhistory.si.edu/america-on-the-move
For additional information related to Chinese immigrant workers and the Transcontinental Railroad, see the Digital Public Library of America’s primary source set: Early Chinese Immigration to the US.
This set was created by Rachel Kim of the Temple University College of Education.
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