A World Made Smaller
By David Jepsen
With the completion of two transcontinental railroads (the Central Pacific in 1869 and the Northern Pacific in 1883), the railroad opened up the world to the West and the West to the world.
How people worked and what they ate changed as much as how they traveled. In 1850, newcomers to Oregon were mostly farmers and ranchers traveling with families. The more adventurous souls, mostly young men traveling without families, sought California gold.
The railroad allowed farmers, ranchers and miners to sell their goods beyond the borders of the territory. Goods produced on farms, ranches and mines could be cheaply shipped to coveted eastern markets. "The social distances seemed less as farm families and merchant households enjoyed the benefits of the same stoves, washing machines and bed frames all brought by rail and passing through the depot gateway," wrote one historian. Likewise, with the widespread use of refrigerated cars in the 1880s, eastern families could serve fresh Washington apples or California oranges in the winter, a once unimaginable luxury. The demand for products on both sides of the continent created new jobs throughout the West, from Yakima hop fields, to Montana coal mines and Oregon logging camps.
Along with job growth came urban growth. Cities like Seattle and Tacoma soon surpassed Portland as vital economic hubs, while Walla Walla, Pasco and Spokane owed their rapid growth to the railroads as well.
1. For more details on the demographic patterns of western settlers see Richard White, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A New History of the American West, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 185.
2. Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda, The West the Railroads Made, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008, 90-91.
3. The West the Railroads Made, 75.
Copyright © 2007-2008 Washington State Historical Society
In this 1928 photo taken by Asahel Curtis, workers load crates of Wenatchee apples onto freight cars.
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