The Pacific Railroads and the Pacific World: American Expansion, Asian Trade, and Terraqueous Mobility

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:50 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton)
Sean Fraga, Princeton University
The goal of capturing Asian trade structured the planning, construction, and operations of the U.S. transcontinental railroads during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These railroads—including Union Pacific, Central Pacific, Northern Pacific, Southern Pacific, and Great Northern—functioned as new links in an emergent worldwide network of steam-powered rail and ship connections. Their builders and backers believed these railroads would chart a new path for commerce between the Atlantic World and Asia, principally China and Japan.

In contrast to scholarship that understands American westward expansion in terrestrial terms, this paper considers the Pacific railroads through a terraqueous lens, demonstrating how the railroads manipulated both terrestrial and aquatic spaces in order to access transpacific trade. In doing so, this paper recovers the excitement many nineteenth-century white Americans felt about trade with Asia and shows how interest in Asian trade was woven into the transcontinental railroads from their very beginnings. Americans collectively referred to these companies as "Pacific railroads" and understood them more in relation to the ocean they reached than the continent they crossed. In the 1840s, Asa Whitney, an American merchant grown rich from maritime trade with China, began promoting a transcontinental railroad to reduce transit times between the U.S. and Asia. During the 1850s, the Pacific Railroad Surveys sought to establish the best corridors for railroads to Pacific Coast harbors, where transcontinental trains would connect with transpacific ships. In the 1870s and 1880s, promoters used the promise of earnings from Asian trade to sell railroad construction bonds. At the golden-spike ceremonies marking each railroad’s completion, speakers invoked Asia’s supposed wealth as a source of profit. But by the turn of the twentieth century, these railroads, which had hoped to profit from Asian imports, instead found it more lucrative to export American goods and support American imperialism in the Pacific World.