How to Use
Reading 1: The Railroad: A National Controversy
(Refer to Maps 3 and 4 to note locations of railroad lines and cities discussed in the reading.)
The period 1840 to 1860 was marked by great westward migrations in the United States spurred by the desire for land; the discovery of gold; the Mexican War, which resulted in the acquisition of much of the Southwest; and waves of foreign immigration sparked by famine in Ireland and revolution in Germany. The entire country was changing. It was clear that a nationwide system of transportation was needed.
The Old Courthouse was the setting for several meetings held to champion railroad construction. St. Louis, with its western orientation, promoted a rail line to the West Coast even before it had connections with the East Coast. By 1844 Asa Whitney, a New York businessman, began a nationwide campaign to interest the public in a transcontinental railroad line. In November 1846 he spoke in the rotunda of the St. Louis Courthouse before an enthusiastic group of local business people. They passed a resolution to be sent to Congress urging the adoption of the idea.
In 1847 telegraph lines finally reached the Mississippi River. This important communication link with the East quickened an interest in establishing rail connections. In December of that year, large groups of interested townspeople once again gathered in the rotunda to discuss the possibilities. Another resolution was adopted, this one calling on the city to subscribe $500,000 toward the extension of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad line from Cincinnati to St. Louis. The money was soon raised and construction begun.
Throughout the 1850s the idea of building a transcontinental railroad that would bind the newly acquired western territories to the eastern half of the country became one of the nation's prime concerns. It would be a monumental task. The rails had to be laid across 1,700 miles of desert and mountains; opposition from American Indians was inevitable. Still, in spite of obstacles, the planning went forward.
Controversy arose over which section of the country-North, South, or Middle-should be the eastern terminus for the proposed rail line. In October 1849, after several preliminary meetings, a great railroad convention met in the St. Louis Courthouse rotunda to consider the issue. Delegates came from 14 states. Missouri's Senator Thomas Hart Benton gave a powerful and moving speech in favor of St. Louis serving as the eastern terminus. Even before the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803, Missouri, and especially St. Louis, had considered the Far West as their special preserve. Its interests were their interests and its development was part of their future. In addition, St. Louis's central location on the Mississippi made it the logical starting point for the western portion of the railroad.
The renowned Stephen Douglas, who would later become a leading contender for president of the United States, supported a northern line with Chicago serving as the eastern terminus. He argued that Chicago was closer and more accessible than St. Louis to New York and Boston, two of the wealthiest and most well-established cities in the nation. New York had always been Chicago's natural trading partner, whether shipments passed through the Great Lakes and the Erie Canal or by rail. Besides, the Chicago people pointed out, Benton's proposed central route utilized the Cochetopa Pass, which was too mountainous and too difficult to use.
The southern states hoped that the southwestern territories acquired in 1848 as a result of the Mexican War would be admitted to the Union as slave states. They, of course, favored a southern route that would connect slave-holding neighboring states. Representatives from Tennessee and Kentucky attended the convention and proposed that Memphis serve as the eastern terminus for the railroad.
Throughout the 1850s, the courthouse was host to other railroad meetings. The transcontinental railroad issue was difficult to decide. We can only guess at the number of times the issue was discussed among the nation's policy makers as well as the general public. In the end, Chicago won out. The Union Pacific Railroad, which connected Chicago with Omaha, Nebraska, began building westward until it met the Central Pacific Railroad being built eastward from California. St. Louis was eventually served by a railroad, but its dream of being at the center of this transportation revolution was over.
1. Why by 1849 did most Americans believe that it was time for the country to build a transcontinental railroad line?
2. What were the three proposed routes?
3. Which route did Senator Thomas Hart Benton support and why did he push for that route?
4. Which route did Stephen Douglas support and what were his reasons for favoring that route?
5. Which route would you have supported? Explain your reasons.
6. The debate was held in the St. Louis Courthouse in 1849, but the last track for the transcontinental railroad was not laid until 1869. What obstacles might have stood in the way of completing the railroad sooner?
Reading 1 was adapted from Donald Dosch, The Old Courthouse: Americans Build a Forum on the Frontier (Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1979), and James Primm, Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 2nd ed.(Boulder, Colo.:Pruett Publishing Co., 1990).