American Legal History
-- PaulineAbijaoude - 25 Apr 2018

The age of Congressional grants of land to railroads matured in the 1850s and rapidly declined in favor by the 1870s. This short period does not encompass the entire history of Congress and its land grants to railroads, only the period that took these projects from heroic visions to villainization. But the "action and reaction" between railways and the government began with the early railroad projects and remained well into the following century as the railroads lobbied for better terms and more funds while the government sought the money it was owed. (1)

For the most part, railroads were privately owned even from the beginning but they sought land donations from Congress, who granted them the land directly, or indirectly through the states who in turn granted the land to the railroads. (2) Congress began granting railroads right-of-way through public lands since 1835. (3) In addition to roads, the companies were given lands for depot sites and terminals as well as the ability to partake in the "stone, timber and earth" from adjoining government land for building and repairing the tracks. (4) However, almost no railroad received all the land it required from Congress, and some received too little to succeed. The Burlington railroad in Nebraska is possibly the only railroad to receive all of the lands it required to build its milage in a land grant. (5)

By the mid-19th century, the West was demanding railroads, sure of the potential for economic growth. (6) Capital from the East and Europe was funneling into railroad construction in the West and plans for new lines were constantly produced. (7) In 1850, the Illinois Central grant was passed and this began a "new epoch" by opening the floodgates to land grants for railroads.(8) The Illinois Central grant was quite profitable to the railroad and other states wanted the same opportunity for themselves.(9)

In total, Congress gave 127,337,284 acres of public land for railroad construction.(10) This meant that, next to States, the railroads were the greatest dispensers of land in the United States.(11) As the decade progressed, the power of the railroad companies grew. James Bryce observed in THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH, "the railroad kings have of late years swayed the fortunes of American citizens more than the politicians.(12)

From the start, there were discussions of a Pacific line, but in the early years of the railroad mania, these suggestions and bills were dismissed as "nothing more than reveries of overheated imaginations." (13)

Finally, in 1862, Congress passed a land bill for a Pacific railroad.(14) However, by about 1870, opposition, and public outcry against railroads became so strong as to indicate an end of the era.(15) The sources of public frustration were numerous. With time, it became clear that relatively little desirable and inexpensive land was left for settlement.(16) In 1870, the House found that its policy of granting subsidies to railroads and other corporations "ought to be discontinued" and that public lands of the United States should be held for the exclusive purpose of securing homesteads to actual settlers.(17)

As soon as the land-grant movement lost momentum, there was a cry for forfeitures of the grants.(18) The bills for forfeiture were regular and numerous moving forward.(19) The history of the government and the grants it provided to railroads did not end in the 1870s, rather the government and the people were left dealing with the consequences of the land grants and the power they had created in railroad companies.

The Illinois Central

By the mid-1830s "hardly a state in the Mississippi Valley" was immune from citizen demands for railroad and canal construction projects.(20) The Western frontier lands wanted land donations from the federal government.(21) These communities were small still and could not always get funding or donated land for their desired projects. Illinois tried to undertake a major railroad project but it ended in disaster. Fraud and collusion existed from all sides and little work was done for the money spent.(22) Once the panic of 1837, and then the ensuing depression, hit, the program was abandoned and the State was left with crippling debt and interest that exceeded its entire revenue.(23)

A number of promoters were interested in building up the town of Cairo and connecting it to Galena through a central railroad, securing a charter from the State of Illinois in 1843 and creating a railroad company.(24) However, the charter protected the state's interests too well and the promoters could not raise the necessary capital.(25) There was then an effort to procure a grant of preemption rights from Congress in order to assist the company in financing the railroad.(26) This effort was blocked by Stephen Douglas who instead wanted a grant of land from Congress, and a change in route so that Chicago and not Cairo, is the feeder for the railroad.(27)

In 1850, Stephen Douglas succeeded in obtaining the grant of land, in addition to a right-of-way for the Illinois Central railroad project, with a branch heading to Chicago. (28) The terms of the grant provided that the state was to receive the alternate sections of land for six-miles out on each side of the line of track, which it should then sell, using the funds to build the railroad.(29) The remaining public land was to be sold at double-minimum and U.S. troops were to be transported free of charge. (30) Isaac Walker, the Senator from Wisconsin, spoke out against the double-minimum price required for the sale of both government and railroad lands under the grant because of the impact it would have on settlers.(31) However, at the time the public attitude towards the railroads was still positive and soon the success of the Illinois Central railroad would only prompt more investment into railroad companies.(32)

The Illinois Central sought out immigrants in order to sell its land and generate funds. In the decade of the 1860s, the population of Illinois increased more than that of any other state in the Union, with thousands of migrants moving to the state.(33) The railroad hosted extensive advertising campaigns in eastern states and abroad in order to direct immigration to the plains of Illinois.(34) The company would even send agents abroad to recruit and would then have agents in Quebec and New York to meet the immigrants who were planning to go to its lands. (35)

Although the Illinois Central succeeded in maintaining a good reputation with the people of Illinois and remained the most popular railroad in the state, it did not escape the bitter criticism of the 1870s.(36) Like other railroads, it was swept up in the anger of the public that had become disillusioned, no longer viewing the railroads as a path to the future but rather as a corrupt and parasitic power.

The Pacific Railroad

Where the Illinois Central was built at the peak of optimism regarding the railroads, the Pacific railroad was one of the last to receive public grants, coming under a cloak of skepticism from the time it obtained the grant in 1862. Yet, talk of a Pacific railroad began even with the construction of the first railroads in the 1830s, a time when the proposals for 3,000 miles of track were not truly considered by the government of a country in possession of only 229 miles of track altogether. (37)

In 1844, Asa Whitney presented Congress with his first petition for a Pacific railroad. In January of 1845, he petitioned the House for public lands to build a railroad from Lake Michigan, through the Rocky Mountains, to the Oregon Territory and on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.(38) His pleas addressed a wide range of benefits that he believed the railroad would bring, from relieving "our cities from a vast amount of misery, vice, crime and taxation" to taking the poor unfortunates to a land "where they will be compelled to labor for a subsistence, and as they will soon find themselves...surrounded with comfort and plenty, the reward of their own toil."(39) He lobbied incessantly for the rest of the decade but each of his petitions failed. (40)

Efforts to build a Pacific Railroad continued and failed throughout the 1850s, either because of a lack of the necessary technology or because the parties involved could not agree on whether government aid was essential, or which of the many potential routes to build.(41)

Three steps were necessary before an actual plan for a Pacific railroad could be seriously considered -- first a survey through the Rocky Mountains and the western terrains, second the "removal of the intruded Indians who had been concentrated along the eastern frontier" and third the creation of territories through which to project the railroad.(42) This required coordinated efforts but the support for the Pacific railroad was not united.

In 1861, the political reasons for funding the railroad were increasing. The Pacific Coast states were loyal to the Union but isolated, and the trouble with Native Americans was increasing at a time when troops were needed elsewhere. Therefore, Congressmen saw the advantage in binding California to the Union and enabling the army to support the frontier outposts through a railroad line.(43)

By 1862, the country possessed 32,120 miles of track, as well as the necessary technology to pursue this project.(44) Yet, there were still concerns -- the longest road in existence was the Illinois Central which was only 700 miles of track, and the terrain of the Pacific railroad would traverse the western mountains and desserts.(45) In July of 1862, Congress enacted the bill to grant the Pacific railroad its land.(46) But by this time, the belief was that constructing the transcontinental road would taint someone's hands, it was just not clear whose.(47)

So, the project began under suspicion. The Civil War was not going well for the North with costs and casualties mounting.(48) The Public was disillusioned with the waste and corruption of army contractors and other parasites feeding on the government.(49) The visionaries who were lining up since the 1830s were gone, and in their place stood the "tough, practical, persistent" promoters, who were hardly disinterested patriots.(50)



1 : see, Lewis Henry Haney, A CONGRESSIONAL HISTORY OF RAILWAYS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1950-1887, in Economics and Political Science Series, Vol.6 No.1, pp. 7-9, 88 (1910)(Table showing payments and balance due)

2 : Benjamin H. Hibbard,A HISTORY OF THE PUBLIC LAND POLICIES 241 (1939)


4 : Hibbard, 242


6 : Id. at 356

7 : Id

8 : Hibbard, 244

9 , 32 : Haney, 18


11 : Id..

12 : James Bryce, THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH, Vol.II, p. 407 (1888)

13 : Maury Klein, UNION PACIFIC, Vol.1 (2006)

14 : Pacific Railway Act of 1862, attached.

15 : Haney, 20

16 : Hibbard, 253

17 : Cong. Globe, 42nd congress, 1849-1871, p.2085

18 : Haney, 23

19 : Id. at 25




23 : id.

24 : Id. at 26

25 : Id.

26 : 28

27 : Id. 28-29


29 : Hibbard, 245

30 : Id. at 246



34 : Id. at 170-172

35 : Id. at 193

36 : Id. at 303

37 : Klein, 7

38 : Cong. Globe, 28th Congress, 218

39 : Id.

40 : Hibbard, 247

41 : Klein, 7-12


43 : Klein, 13

44 : Id. at 16

45 : 16

46 : U.S. Stat. at Large, XII p.489-498

47 : Klein, at 13

48 , 50 : Id. at 13

49 : .Id.


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Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdf Congressional_Globe_218.pdf props, move 748.5 K 26 Apr 2018 - 05:50 PaulineAbijaoude Fn 37
pdf PacificRailwayActof1862.pdf props, move 3401.7 K 25 Apr 2018 - 23:57 PaulineAbijaoude Fn14 - Pacific Railway Act of 1862
pdf The_Congressional_Globe_2095.pdf props, move 606.6 K 25 Apr 2018 - 23:58 PaulineAbijaoude Fn 17 - The Congressional Globe, 2095
pdf U.S._Stat_at_Large,_XII_.pdf props, move 937.8 K 26 Apr 2018 - 05:50 PaulineAbijaoude Fn 45
r4 - 28 Apr 2018 - 17:20:01 - PaulineAbijaoude
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