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The New Industrial Age: After the Civil War

The United States was transformed from an agricultural to industrial society in the years following the Civil War. Factors contributing to this remarkable change included the following:

  • Availability of massive supplies of raw materials, such as timber, iron ore, oil and other resources
  • Development of new inventions and technology
  • Existence of a large labor force constantly replenished by immigration
  • Emergence of highly talented, but often unscrupulous business leaders.
Industrial progress in a nation the size of the United States would have been difficult without the unifying influence of a transcontinental railroad system. At the end of the Civil War, most of the existing railroad operations were “short lines” serving a limited territory. Confusion ran rampant when goods were shipped over long distances; cargoes had to be repeatedly reloaded onto different lines to reach their destinations. Differing track gauges and the lack of standardized time further muddied the picture.

Order was imposed on this confusion by such railroad consolidators as J. Edgar Thomson and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

The concept of transcontinental railroad lines had been discussed as early as the 1830s and was revived during the California gold rush of 1849. Technical difficulties, bitter rivalries over route locations and massive expense prevented action until the Civil War. For a variety of political and military motives, Congress began the process in 1862 with the passage of the Pacific Railroads Act, which provided funding for the Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad. Other transcontinental links followed shortly.

Railroad expansion did not always run smoothly. Financial panics in 1873 and 1893 halted construction and ruined many ventures.