New Perspectives on THE WEST
The Program People Places Events Resources Lesson Plans Quiz
1. The Railway
2. Mark Twain
3. Native
4. African-
5. Images of the
6. Writings of the West
7. Fragile Western Biome
8. Water Use
9. Infectious Disease
10. Natural Disasters

The Transcontinental Railroad

Grade level: 6-12

Using a variety of maps, students assess the need for a transcontinental railroad in the 1860's. They then analyze two founding documents for the settlement of the West, the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Act both passed by Congress in 1862. After viewing sections of the documentary The West students are divided into four teams. Each reacts to the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad from a different perspective. The railway owners and promoters create travel brochures. Tourists and settlers write diaries about an actual trip on the railroad. Chinese workers write a series of letters home about building the Iron Rail. Native Americans write chants mourning the passing of the buffalo and speeches expressing their anger at the growing incursion onto their lands. At the end all four groups come together to asses the total effect the railroad had on American life. The lesson concludes by contrasting the classic photos and paintings of the meeting of the rails at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869 with what they have learned in the lesson.

Estimated Time
Necessary Materials
Teaching Procedure
Assessment Recommendations
Extension/Adaptation Ideas
Relevant National Standards


Students will:

  • understand the need for a Transcontinental Railroad,
  • appreciate the effect the railroad had on American life from a variety of perspectives (promoters, settlers, Chinese immigrants, American Indians), and
  • become astute analyzers of primary source material and effective writers in a variety of genres.

Estimated Time
Teachers can choose to implement select aspects of this lesson in one or two class periods. To complete all phases of the lesson would require approximately 10 class periods.

Necessary Materials

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Index cards, a large bulletin board, and a few art materials (markers, large sheet of paper)
  • A variety of materials for writing facsimile 19th century letters, diaries, and brochures
  • Episode V ("The Grandest Enterprise in the World") of the Ken Burns and Stephen Ives PBS documentary The West

Teaching Procedure
Activity I: Map Work

  1. With your class view a political map of the United States in 1860, such as the one at the Web site of the University of Texas at Austin: Map_collection/united_states/US_Terr_1860.jpg.

    Ask the class to imagine that they are living in 1860 when a political map of the United States looked like this. Ask the class the following questions:

    • In 1860 did the United States encompass land from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts?
    • How many states existed in 1860?
    • Was there any land which was owned by the United States government but which was not yet admitted into the Union as a state?
    • What is the difference between a state and a territory?
    • How did a territory become a state? (For an answer to this question, have students review the Northwest Ordinance at:
    • Why do students think so few Easterners settled in between the states fronting the Mississippi River and the states of California and Oregon? (The exception here is Texas whose history you may wish to discuss separately.) In other words, why did people cross the continent to settle California and Oregon in great enough numbers to entitle them to become states, but bypass settling the Great Plains?

      To answer this question, ask students to turn to a classroom atlas. Looking at a variety of maps (vegetation, relief, rainfall etc.) help students gain a picture of the Great Plains. Remind students that the sod that covered prairies at this point in time had never been turned by a plow.

  2. Then ask students to consider the following:
    • Were there good water sources on the plains?
    • If there were few trees, with what would settlers build? What would they use for fuel?
    • What means of transportation existed at this time to either transport settlers and goods onto the plains, or transport the goods they produced to markets elsewhere?
    • What means of communication existed to connect those settling the plains with people on either the eastern or western seaboards?
    • What American Indian tribes lived in these areas, and how might they have survived? For a map see the collection of Historical Maps of the United States, University of Texas at Austin: Map_collection/united_states/Early_Indian_West.jpg

  3. Now ask students the final two interrelated questions of this part of the lesson:
    • How could the government play a role in enticing people to settle the Great Plains?
    • While a map of the United States would show many railroads in the North (fewer in the South) in 1860, none reached across the Great Plains or linked the country coast to coast. How could railroad companies be encouraged by the government to build a railroad to service a part of the country where there were as yet no significant numbers of United States citizens? Conversely, why should settlers come when there was no railroad?
    • Remind students that the government could not fund efforts to settle the plains with cash, especially in light of the expenses needed to fight the Civil War that erupted in 1861. What other kinds of help could it offer? Let students brainstorm various "deals." List them on the board to contrast their plans with the ones actually offered by Congress.

  4. At this point show the first five minutes of Episode 5, "The Grandest Enterprise Under God" It introduces the time period, the need for a continental railway, and some of its consequences.

Activity 2: Document Analysis
This activity involves reading government documents, and because the language can be difficult for inexperienced readers, this activity is best suited to high school students. You could summarize the documents for younger students.

  1. Print and make copies of "The Homestead Act" and "The Pacific Railway Act." Distribute to students.

  2. Have students answer the following questions on the Homestead Act of 1862:
    • What is the purpose of this act?
    • What is meant by the term "public domain"?
    • Who is entitled to secure a grant of land from the Federal Government? Can women secure such a grant in their own names, and if so, how?
    • What is the largest amount of land a person can secure from the Federal government through this act?
    • How would one go about applying for land under the act (filing the affidavit)?
    • How long would one have to wait in between filing an affidavit and securing final title to the land one settled? What did a settler need to do in the meantime?
    • How much per acre did land under the Homestead Act cost?
    • The Homestead Act was meant to insure that United States citizens who actually wanted to farm land were the recipients of the government's largess. Who else might have wanted to profit from this deal, and how? How is the law trying to prevent various abuses?

  3. Place students in pairs. Ask one person to play a government official at a land office. Ask the second person to play a head of household. Then have each pair write and enact a script in which the settler registers for a land grant.

  4. Have students answer the following questions on on the Pacific Railway Act of 1862:
    • What is the purpose of this act?
    • What is the Union Pacific Railroad Company empowered by this act to do?
    • Mark on a map the route that the transcontinental railroad will follow. What will be the most difficult terrain on which to lay track? What other difficulties do you foresee in terms of crews of men living and working in a variety of environments as they lay tracks?
    • Why do you think the government is providing for the building of telegraph poles along the length of the railroad?
    • The act is giving the railroad the right of way on public lands. How much land on either side of tracks does this include? What does the government promise to do if American Indian tribes claim title to this land?
    • In Section 3 the act provides the railroad with more land than what is needed to give it a right of way. Why will this land fronting the railroad tracks be even more valuable than land given to homesteaders at a distance from the railway?
    • What method of financing the railway does the bill propose in Section 5?
    • Under what terms is the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California authorized to build a railway headed east? Since the bonds will be awarded based on completed mileage of railway track, which company would ultimately be awarded the most money? How does this set up a competition between the two railways?
    • The Central Pacific Railroad had to lay track in the mountainous region of the Sierra Nevadas, one of the most difficult endeavors of the entire enterprise. This will obviously take much more time than laying tracks on the flat plains. How does the government plan to compensate the companies for the laying of track over mountainous terrain?

      (If the last two questions are difficult to answer based on the document, the answers are provided in Episode 5 between 5 and 14 minutes into the film, a segment which is shown later in the lesson.)

  5. Additional questions on both the Homestead Act and Pacific Railway Act are:
    • What month and year did Congress pass each of these two acts? Why do you think they were passed within months of each other?
    • In what ways are these acts mutually beneficial both to settlers and the railways?

  6. Divide the class into three groups and ask each group to do the following:
    • Railway owners
      As railway owners you will want to maximize your profits. Your lawyers are ready to look over both acts to see how your company can make the most money. As a group plan whatever strategies you can to do so. (In your thinking, be sure to include use of the land you will acquire.)

    • Land Speculators
      You are neither settlers nor railway owners, but people who want to buy land as cheaply as possible and then re-sell it at a much higher rate. Your lawyers will look at both these acts to find as many loopholes as possible for ways in which you can purchase land for re-sale.

    • Settlers
      You are people who want to purchase land for farming. The Homestead Act seems like the bonanza you have been waiting for. However, profiting from both these acts may be harder than you imagine. Discuss the various difficulties you may face in terms of staking your claim to land, holding on to it, and making it profitable.

  7. Now have each group present their strategies to the class. What conflicts are evident? What problems do students foresee, if any?

Activity 3: The Building of the Railway: Viewing Segments of the Documentary

  1. Tell students that thus far they have looked at the building of the Transcontinental Railway only through the eyes of the U.S. government and the people it wanted the railroad to serve. What other groups of people were affected by this enormous undertaking and why?

  2. With this question in mind begin showing Episode Five at approximately 7:00 minutes in with the caption "Grandest Enterprise" and stop at 20:38 with "The Artillery of Heaven." This portion discusses the workers for the Union Pacific who were often immigrants, and the effect of the railway on the American Indians. See Episode Five Introduction, "A Grand Anvil Chorus," and "White Man's Pipe" for corresponding information.

  3. Next show "The Artillery of Heaven" beginning at 20:39 and ending at approximately 28:00 (when the film shifts focus to the cattle men of Texas). This portion deals with the Chinese workers imported to build the railway for the Central Pacific.

  4. In discussing these sections of the film pose the following questions:
    • How did the building of the railway change the life of the plains Indians in ways that would prove to be unalterable?
    • Were the Chinese at first considered to be suitable workers on the railway? Why were they eventually chosen in such large numbers? What credit is due them for building the railway?

  5. Next show the section of the film that covers the completion of the tracks and the meeting of the two railways at Promontory. It begins at approximately 33:15 with the title "One People" The sequence ends at approximately 40:00 with a discussion of Brigham Young. Find corresponding information in One People.

    In discussing this section of the film pose the following questions:

    • In what way was the joining of the rails at Promontory, Utah a national, rather than a local, event?
    • How did technology itself play a role in transmitting the event to the nation?
    • Envision yourself a citizen of the U.S. in 1869. How would this event make you feel about your country? About technology? About the future?

Activity 4: Team Projects That View the Railway from Four Different Perspectives

  1. Divide the class into four teams. Explain that each team will have a task to complete about the Transcontinental Railroad from one of four perspectives. After each group receives instructions, including some relevant Web links, allow it at least several days to complete its assigned tasks.

    Instructions for:

  2. Final Instructions For all 4 Teams
    Exchange what you have written with another member of your team. Edit each other's work and give suggestions for improvement. Write a final draft of your own work.

    Meet as a team to choose five words or phrases which best express your team's attitude toward the Transcontinental Railroad (in the roles you played). These words should be written down on large index cards, and decorated with appropriate images. These will later be put up on a class bulletin board display.

Activity 5: The Transcontinental Railroad From All Four Perspectives

  1. Re-Grouping Activity

    This is an optional but potentially interesting exercise. Create new teams, each new team to be composed of one member of the original four groups. Now each team will contain at least one representative from the Railroad promoters, passengers, Chinese workers, American Indians. Each new team member should bring whatever he or she has written for the original group and one of the index cards expressing his or her old team's view of the railway. After the new group has shared what each group member has written, ask the new group to create one new index card with a word or phrase which best expresses a combination of everyone's point to view. (This may be well-nigh impossible, but they will learn a great deal in the attempt.)

  2. Creating a Transcontinental Railroad Bulletin Board

    Ask several artistically talented students to create a large image which represents the Transcontinental Railroad. Divide the board in quarters and place the image of the railroad in the center. Assign one quarter to each of the original four teams and ask each team to post whatever it has written (brochures, Indian chants, letters, diaries, etc.) in the appropriate quarter. Save the index cards and place them around the entire bulletin board to create a border. Discuss with the class the multiple perspectives the bulletin board represents.

  3. Now pose these questions:
    • Given everything the class has learned, what are their predictions for how the Transcontinental Railway will change America?
    • How could the contributions of Chinese Americans to America's development be better recognized today?
    • Was the destruction of traditional Indian life on the Plains inevitable? If not, why not? What restitution can be made today for what was lost as a consequence of events over 100 years ago?

  4. Memorializing the Transcontinental Railroad

    Now ask students to look at how the building of the Transcontinental Railroad has been memorialized in the American consciousness through the classic photos and paintings of the event.

    Have them look at and analyze the following:

    Help students analyze the photographs by asking them to fill in the Photograph Analysis Worksheet from the National Archives and Records Administration.

    Now ask students:

    • What is missing from these images?
    • What would a fitting monument to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad look like? (Ask interested students to design one.)
    • Is it important to consider historical events from multiple perspectives? Is there ever one interpretation of events that represents the truth?

Assessment Recommendations

  1. Students should be for the written work they produced as a member of their team. Their work should reflect that they have completed research at the suggested Web sites, in books or other Web sites. Their work should demonstrate an understanding of "point of view" and should be written in an appropriate "voice" which also reflects an understanding of the genre in which they are writing.

  2. Students should be assessed for their work as cooperative members of their teams.

  3. Students should be assessed for their participation in class discussion.

Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  1. Investigate the history of the railroads in America. At what point in time did they become the monopolizing and strangling "octopus"? Why was their power short-lived, ultimately, in the American landscape?

  2. We are on the cusp of various technological advances today. Ask students to choose one or two to discuss in terms of what they learned about the Transcontinental Railroad (e.g. the Internet, genetic engineering). Will all Americans reap equal benefits? How can we insure that big business will serve the public well? In what ways, if any, does the new technology threaten the environment?

  3. Compare the fate of the Chinese in America to American Indian nations in the decades following the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. What laws effect each group? What are their consequences?

  4. Compare the building of the Transcontinental Railroad to various projects currently being advanced in the Brazilian rainforest. What are the benefits of these incursions into the rainforest? What are the possible losses in terms of conserving the habitat of indigenous peoples?

Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards.

  • History
    established by the National Center for History in the Schools
    • Era 4 Standard 2E
      The Student understands the settlement of the West. Therefore the student is able to: Analyze cultural interactions among diverse groups in the trans-Mississippi region.
    • Era 6 Standard 1C
      The student understands how agriculture, mining, and ranching were transformed. The student is therefore able to: Analyze the role of the federal government — particularly in terms of land policy, water, and Indian policy — in the economic transformation of the West.
    • Standard 2A
      The student understands the sources and experiences of the new immigrants.
  • Language Arts (9-12)
    established by the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning
    • The student uses a variety of techniques to convey personal style and voice
    • The student uses a variety of print and electronic sources to gather information for research topics.

About the Author
Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Her work in the classroom has been described in various articles she has written over the years for Social Education. Joan and fellow-colleague Sari Grossman are the editors of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at

The Program | People | Places | Events | Resources | Lesson Plans | Quiz