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The Iron Road | Article

Teacher's Guide

Students will examine the planning, funding and building of the transcontinental railroad; demonstrate map reading skills; compare and analyze sources of information and discuss how the decision to build the railroad affected different ethnic communities.

A Chinese tea carrier outside the tunnel through the Sierras, Library of Congress

Introducing the Program
Have students consider which modes of transportation they might use to travel from New York to San Francisco and how long each journey would take. Then ask students to think about which types of transportation were available 150 years ago. Explain that The Iron Road is about the adventure of building the first railroad that spanned our continent, cutting the time of a cross-country trip from six months to ten days.

Critical Viewing
Point out to students that every documentary film uses many sources of information. As they watch any documentary, they should evaluate the sources that the film uses. Have students pay particular attention to how The Iron Road uses on-screen interviews to communicate both historic facts and personal impressions. Remind students that one way filmmakers create a point of view is through careful selection of sources. Have students think about why each interview subject was chosen and weigh each subject's point of view.

Encourage students to discuss the program and share their observations. The following questions may be used to stimulate discussion.

1. Why was a transcontinental railroad important to the development of the United States? What role did the government play in its development?

2. What difficulties did workers face building the railroad? Which company do you think faced greater difficulties: the Central Pacific or the Union Pacific?

3. How did government policy lead to conflict with Native Americans? What solutions might have been found to this conflict? Do you think today's government should make reparations for the treaties broken in the 1860's?

4. Why do you think the expected expansion did not come immediately after the railroad was completed?

Follow-up Activities
1. Have students work together to create a poster advertising the first transcontinental railroad. Encourage them to include information about the sights and experiences of traveling from San Francisco to New York in 1869.

2. Have students improvise a historic Senate debate about the Sioux, Cheyenne, and other Native Americans. Students should take the roles of senators who were in favor of the railroad and those who wanted to honor all treaties with Native Americans.

3. Point out that many folk songs, such as "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Pat Maloy," and "Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill," originated during the era of the railroad. Have students find several examples of workers' songs and sing them in a class concert.

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