Tea on the transcontinental railroad

In 1869, the first freight train on the transcontinental railroad traveled eastbound from California. What Japanese commodity did the train carry?
And the answer: tea.    
Photo credit: public domain. 

Before 1869, travel and commerce took months with a treacherous cross along the ocean and Panama. With the success of cargo ventures, passenger service was introduced so Americans could travel the length of the continent in seven days' time. By 1880, the transcontinental railroad transported $50 million worth of goods each year.

Before the construction of the transcontinental railroad, settler life in America was largely concentrated along the Atlantic. Travel in the 18th century depended on water, as small-scale farming and other artisan endeavors were spread by boating their product downstream. While roads between the colonies did exist, they were poorly built and thus not suited for commercial use. As a result, the trade of agricultural produce was time consuming, expensive, and largely inefficient.  

Yet, a solution lay in sight. Between 1840 and 1860, railroad track in North America increased ten-fold, going from around 3,000 miles of laid track to over 30,000 miles of track. However, the track that was laid during this time was primarily in the North, and much of it remained unconnected. Competing rail companies would build track of varying widths, thus making it impossible to connect until railway standardization many years later.

Finally, in 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines met, marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Once their infrastructure was completed and initial problems resolved, the railways lowered the cost of transporting many kinds of goods. Railroads became a major industry, stimulating other heavy industries such as iron and steel production.

Between 1829 and 1841, the amount of wheat delivered along the Erie Canal rose from 3,640 bushels to a million bushels. Rail stations stimulated the growth of cities like New York and Chicago, as well as strategically located towns like Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. The new transportation system allowed Americans to take advantage of the continent’s vast territory and natural resources, and to build an industrial economy on a national scale.

Learn more about the effects of the transcontinental railroad here.

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