The History of Railroads in the United States

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12663

Before text messaging and email, it could take days, weeks, even months for mail to travel! Talk about snail mail! Railroads made travel for mail and people much faster, and helped the country grow!


United States

learning style
Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What mode of transportation allowed the United States to quickly grow, and people to spread out across the land during the 1800s?
  • Have you ever heard of the Iron Horse?

The railroad is an important part of U.S. history.

Before the railroad, it was difficult for people to travel and move west. It would take a family two to three months to travel west by wagon.

The journey by wagon was also dangerous and many people died from disease, drowning in rivers, and attacks by wild animals.

  • Would you be willing to travel west if you knew you would face these challenges?

The railroad made it much easier and safer for people to move and travel west. Whereas it had previously taken several months for people to travel west, the railroad allowed people to make the journey in about five to seven days.

Since the travel time was much shorter and people were not exposed to the elements while riding on a train, few deaths occurred as people made their way westward.

Check out the timeline below to learn more about the history of the railroad in the United States:

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As you can see, the railroad played an important part in the growth of the United States in the 1800s.

Use the timeline to help you answer the following questions. Write your answers on a separate piece of paper:

  1. Why was the railroad a better method for traveling west compared to early forms of travel such as wagons?
  1. How did the railroad help improve trade in the United States?
  1. How did the railroad help the United States expand?
  1. Why is the Transcontinental Railroad considered the most important part of railroad history?
  1. Why did people stop using the railroads in the 1920s?
  1. Early steam engines were called "iron horses." Why do you think that name came about?

When you are finished writing your answers, consider the following bonus question:

  • How would traveling by train be more comfortable than traveling by wagon?

If you have ever ridden on a train, think about what that experience was like. If you are able to do so, discuss traveling by train with someone who has also ridden on a train.

When you are ready, move on to the Got It? section to learn more about railroads.

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