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Railroad Lithograph
Railroad Lithograph

This Currier and Ives lithograph illustrates the railroads' central role in nineteenth century American economic development. While water transportation had first facilitated national commerce and western settlement, by the 1850s railroads had begun to displace steamboats and barges on many routes. Rails also opened up access to places not served by rivers or canals. Chicago's location at the Great Lakes' southwestern tip, coupled with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, had made it a great western transportation center in the 1830s and 40s. By traveling to the city immigrants and businessmen could reach as far into the continent as lake travel permitted. The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened up water access to the Mississippi Valley by 1848. But Chicago's position also made it an ideal railroad hub where passengers and cargo might change from water to rail transportation on their westward journey. The Illinois Central Railroad mirrored the Mississippi's path, stretching southward to the Gulf, and other railroads pushed out from Chicago toward the frontier. Note in this image how the railroad locomotive has surged into the foreground, cutting in front of the steamboat seemingly stranded on the river in the background.

Image source: Chicago Historical Society
©Copyright 2002 Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project