The West the Railroads Made
By David Jepsen
Traveling to the Oregon Territory in the 1850s was a long, arduous, sometimes heartbreaking journey. To appreciate the difficulty, put yourself in Independence, Missouri, the starting point for most westward travelers. Imagine your family is immigrating to Oregon in 1854, and you are about to spend six months living out of a covered wagon, averaging 10 miles on a good day. Five months trudging through the harsh grass lands of Nebraska and Wyoming are followed by a harrowing month-long trek up and down the steep slopes of the Blue or Cascade mountains.
Your travails are far from over when you arrive in Oregon. With winter approaching, you rush to slap together shelter. You either live out of the wagon, or build a temporary dwelling. If you settle inland, where trees are scarce, you cut and stack rectangles of tough, matted sod to make a house called a "soddie." If you settle in the lush Willamette Valley, you use logs or rough-cut lumber to build a one-room shack. With crops not in the ground, food supplies consist of what you can shoot, barter for or trap. You dig in, bundle up and wait out the winter.
If you can imagine yourself in that situation, you begin to understand why life on the trail - and at the end of the trail - was not for the faint-hearted.
Now fast forward 34 years, a mere blink of the eye by historical standards. It’s 1884 and your family is moving from Minnesota to Oregon only this time on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Instead of six months, the journey will take less than six days. Rather than leaving in early summer, hoping you make it over the mountains before winter, you can leave any time of the year. From this vantage point, you don’t experience the West so much as watch it roll by. Upon arrival, you build a framed house fashioned from lumber bought in Oregon City or Walla Walla, or any number of small towns thriving in the West. Supplies can be purchased in town or ordered from a catalogue.
This is the West the railroads made. This article, and the rest of this website, is about that West. A land where nearly everything changed - not always for the better - in an historical blink of the eye.
1. For a more complete discussion of traveling the Oregon Trail, see Clyde A. Milner II, National Initiatives, in The Oxford History of the American West, eds. Clyde A. Milner II, Carol A. O’Connor, Martha A. Sandweiss. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 164-72.
2. Keith L. Bryant, Jr., Entering the Global Economy, in Oxford History of the American West, 197.
3. Carlos A. Schwantes and James P. Ronda, The West the Railroads Made. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008, 8.
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