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The Steel Wheel

Jeffrey Syken

For the first fifty years of its existence, the United States was a broad land rich in promise but difficult to travel any distance by land. Then came the Iron Horse Ė the steam engine, and westward expansion could/would begin in earnest. After the Civil War, American industry was expanding rapidly and it was the railroads with their ability to carry large quantities of raw materials, finished products, agricultural goods and people that was making that expansion possible.

By 1869, a trans-continental railroad allowed goods and people to travel from Atlantic to Pacific and vice-versa. The railroads played a pivotal role as the main means of long-distance transportation in the latter portion of the 19th Century and well into the 20th Century. In the post-WWII years, the railroads had to compete with air travel and the interstate highway system for cars and trucks. As far as the railroads were concerned, their competitors had an unfair advantage since they didnít have the same tax burden leftover from anti-trust legislation that was still in effect half-a-century later.

By the last quarter of the 20th Century, the heyday of American railroads was over but the romance of the train whistle remains. Operating a railroad efficiently was a round-the-clock effort by thousands of dedicated employees. From track and engine maintenance/repair to snow removal, a railroad depended on people to keep the trains running on time and on schedule. More than any other mode of transportation, it was the flanged steel wheel on a steel rail that made thirteen disparate colonies along the eastern seaboard into a nation the size of a continent.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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