Area 5: The United States During Reconstruction (1860s-1870s)
Question: How did the Western region of the U.S. respond to challenges of Reconstruction?
Background for teachers and students
After the California gold rush began in 1849, the need for a transcontinental railroad grew steadily through the 1850s. Plans stalled, however, because of tensions between North and South over the expansion of slavery into the West. Not until after the South seceded and the Civil War began was Congress able to approve government support for construction of a railroad. President Abraham Lincoln, with no southern votes left in Congress to oppose the idea, chose a northern route that ran west from Omaha, Neb. With funds from government loans, government land grants and high-pressure private financing, the Union Pacific Railroad began construction.
Track laying began in 1866, the year after the end of the Civil War. The line reached Cheyenne late in 1867 and Evanston by the end of 1868. In May 1869, the Union Pacific met the east-building Central Pacific in Utah Territory at Promontory Point. As the UP line built west, the booming, lawless construction economy moved with it, fueled by thousands of railroad workers and the merchants, gamblers, prostitutes and thieves happy to take their money. Each end-of-tracks town in succession won the nickname Hell on Wheels.
Soon it became clear that a new territory was needed; Dakota Territory was too large, its capital at Yankton too distant. Congress established Wyoming Territory. Shortly after arriving in Cheyenne in June 1869, Gov. John Campbell noted that this was the first time establishment of a territorial government “was rendered necessary by the building of a railroad.”
As the railroad moved west, the onetime Hell-on-Wheels camps matured into towns: Cheyenne, Laramie, Rawlins, Rock Springs, Green River and Evanston. Gradually, they grew more orderly. Supporting industries emerged, anchoring the territorial economy: track and locomotive maintenance; a steel mill for railroad rails; logging for railroad ties; and coal mines for locomotive fuel at strategic spots along the route.
Wyoming’s principal institutions were all located in the towns as well: the capital in Cheyenne, university in Laramie, state prison in Rawlins and state hospital in Evanston. Non-Indian settlement began to move north from this so-called southern tier of settlement along the railroad. That southern tier would wield its political power—much of it based on the votes of railroad workers and miners connected to the Democratic Party—far into the 20th century.
The question of slavery’s future in the West had brought the nation to the brink of civil war. Reconstruction, after the war, left control of politics and finances in the hands of the victors. The Union Pacific was built by engineers who had all been Union Army officers and was financed, in part, by capitalists who had profited from the war. The railroad, as Gov. Campbell noted, made Wyoming Territory a political necessity. Wyoming, in its political geography, economy and culture, was therefore a creation of the Union Pacific Railroad. The Union Pacific, in turn, would never have come about if the nation had not first torn itself apart, and then faced the task of reassembling—Reconstruction.
The article linked below, “Industry, politics and power: The Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming,” offers substantial background on the topic for teachers and for students 8th grade and up. The article may be demanding for 6th and 7th graders.
Exercise 1 asks that students analyze and compare a photograph and a drawing of an end-of-tracks railroad town. Exercise 2 sends students to an issue of a newspaper published along the tracks in 1868. Some topics in the photos and the newspaper may be sensitive, including prostitution and racial conflict.