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Transcontinental Railroad offers insights into topics in American history including the settling of the West; manifest destiny; contact and conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers; experiences of workers, including Chinese immigrants and Civil War veterans, in building the railroad; 19th century speculators and the rush to claim land; the Credit Mobilier scandal and the backroom dealings that financed the railroad; the technical, mechanical, and engineering challenges of building steam locomotive routes across American terrain; the creation and, sometimes, abandonment of frontier boom towns; the use of nitroglycerin in construction projects; and the role of government in funding and overseeing infrastructure projects. Use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this website to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.
The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, economics, geography, and culture. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.
1. Divide the class into groups of six students each. Each group should photocopy or trace a map of the United States west of the Mississippi River and draw and label the following items: (a) the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, (b) the Oregon Trail and at least one other significant route taken by wagon trains, (c) the Great Plains, (d) areas occupied by at least two different Native American tribal groups mentioned in the film, (e) the cities at which the Transcontinental Railroad started and ended, plus at least two other cities or towns mentioned in the film, (f) deposits of coal, gold, and silver mentioned in the film. (Each member of a group should be responsible for locating and labeling a different item.) When all groups have finished, post the maps on the wall around the classroom.
2. Divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of the following means of transportation: plane, train, bus, and car. Each group is responsible for finding the most direct and economical way of traveling from New York City to Los Angeles using the means of transportation it has been assigned. Groups should present their findings to the class including the time required for the trip and its cost and illustrate their presentation with a hand-drawn map showing their chosen route. After the presentations have been completed, the class should vote on which means of transportation it prefers and why.
1. Read about workers of the Central Pacific, Union Pacific workers, and the Chinese workers' strike. Using information from these readings and the film, write three letters from railroad workers to their families: one from a Chinese worker, one from an Irish worker, and one from a white foreman. In your letters, show the different perspectives and experiences of the three groups.
2. Read about the Credit Mobilier scandal and look at journalist James Surowiecki's essay, Durant's Big Scam. Working with a partner, imagine that you are newspaper reporters in 1872 and have been assigned to write a story outlining the scandal in broad terms for people who have not followed it. Your story should follow a question-and-answer format. Write the story, answering the following questions: What is Credit Mobilier? What is the relationship between Credit Mobilier and the Union Pacific Railroad? How has that relationship benefited Thomas Durant, Oakes Ames, and other Union Pacific officials? Why was that relationship unfair to the taxpayers who paid for construction of the transcontinental railroad? How did certain members of Congress become involved in the Credit Mobilier scheme?
1. Demonstrate, by creating a diagram, flow chart, or three-dimensional model, some mechanical or engineering aspect of the transcontinental railroad that interests you. For example, you might show how a steam-powered locomotive moved (or stopped), how steel rails for the railroad were manufactured, how railroad tunnels were carved through solid mountains, or how railroad bridges were constructed.
2a. Read about Hell on Wheels towns. Use information from the reading and the film to create a board game entitled "Boom Town Sheriff," in which individual players compete to see who can be the first to move his or her piece completely around the board and reach the "Retirement" area in the middle of the board. Set the board up like a frontier town, with individual squares representing the bank, saloon, jail, etc.; each player who lands on the square draws a card describing some fortunate or unfortunate occurrence. (Cards for the bank, for example, might include "The bank's been robbed! Skip one turn." or "Bank robbery foiled! Go forward three squares.") To test players' knowledge of the transcontinental railroad, designate several squares as "Transcontinental Railroad Quiz" squares; players who land on these squares must correctly answer a question about the building of the railroad (for example, "Which company laid more miles of track, the Central Pacific or the Union Pacific?") before they can move on.
2b. Imagine that you have just been selected sheriff of an especially rowdy boomtown as a result of losing a bet to the current sheriff, who is eager to leave town. How do you propose to establish order and justice? What will your attitude be toward such activities as drinking, gambling, prostitution, and the discharge of weapons? How will lawbreakers be treated? Who will help you enforce the laws? Write and deliver the speech you will give to your fellow townspeople outlining your plans.
1. Select one of the following statements and use it as the lead sentence of a 500-word newspaper editorial. Statement 1: "The construction of the transcontinental railroad shows why private companies rather than the federal government should carry out large national infrastructure projects." Statement 2: "The construction of the transcontinental railroad shows why the federal government rather than private companies should carry out large national infrastructure projects." Support your argument with specific facts from the construction of the railroad.
2. Read an interview and an essay on Native Americans and the railroad. Then read about the impact of the transcontinental railroad. The federal government acquired extensive western lands from Native Americans by treaty. Some of these lands were later granted to the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies as partial payment for constructing the Transcontinental Railroad. The railroad companies, in turn, sold land they had been granted by the federal government to private companies and individuals, who used the land for homes and businesses. As a class, create a chart that outlines the different policies the federal government could have pursued with regard to western lands and the transcontinental railroad and the likely benefits and costs of each policy. Your goal should be to find a policy that will bring the greatest benefits (and the least harm) to both the United States and the Indian nations of the West.
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My American Experience
The Railroad revolutionized American travel. Many people ride trains today not just for transportation, but also as a way to see the country. What trains have you been on? Have you been in a Pullman car? Share your most memorable train ride.