The United States’ first transcontinental railroad was completed in November 1869. Nicknamed the “Overland Route,” it linked the sprawling, sparsely populated American West with the bustling and closely connected urban areas in the Midwest and East Coast.
Over the next 20 years, railroad construction boomed, influencing the economic and cultural growth of the United States.
Instructional Ideas
  • Discuss different representations of geographic data: maps, charts, graphs, globes, models, etc.
  • Discuss different types of maps: thematic, topographic, satellite, street or highway, etc.
  • Discuss questions 1-3 in the Questions tab.
  • Discuss the geographic context of the U.S. in the late 1800s. 
    • What social and economic changes was the nation undergoing? For example:
      • recovery from the Civil War (Reconstruction)
      • growth of big business (the Gilded Age)
      • greater social mobility for the African American population
      • new waves of immigration
  • Discuss questions 4-9 in the Questions tab.
  1. The caption on this map says that the amount of railroad tracks in the U.S. tripled between 1870 and 1890. National Geographic chose to display this information with two historical maps. How else could these geographic data have been displayed? Why do you think National Geographic chose to display the information using maps?

  2. National Geographic cartographers chose to use a simple political map displaying modern (unlabeled) state boundaries as a base for these historical maps. What other types of base maps could the cartographers have chosen? Why do you think they chose the simple political map?

  3. In 1870, America’s first transcontinental railroad linked the port of Oakland, California, to the Midwestern rail network starting at Council Bluffs, Iowa. Why do you think Oakland and Council Bluffs are not represented on the 1870 map?

  4. What other transportation methods were available to people wanting to travel from coast-to-coast in the 1800s? Why do you think the transcontinental railroad was nicknamed the “Overland Route”?

  5. Promontory, Utah, was never a large urban area. In fact, in 1870, Utah was not even a state (Promontory was in the Utah Territory). Why do you think cartographers chose to represent it on the 1870 railroad map, along with such well-established cities as Chicago and San Francisco? 

  6. Why do you think rail companies chose to link the first transcontinental railroad to San Francisco, and not Seattle or Los Angeles? 

  7. All the cities represented on the 1890 map are major transportation hubs. In addition to their train stations, what other geographic feature makes these cities important places for transport?

  8. The map’s caption says that trains transported factory-produced products from the north and Midwest. What goods do you think were exported from southern depots? From the west? 

  9. Goods were not the only things carried by the U.S. rail network. What other cargo changed the geography of the nation?

  10. The expansion of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century was followed by the development of an Interstate Highway System in the 20th century, as motorized vehicles became more and more popular. The system is supported by infrastructure, such as gas stations, along these routes. What types of land-based transportation networks and supporting infrastructure might Americans develop in the future?


art and science of making maps.


sharing of information and ideas.

East Coast

Atlantic coast of the United States.


study of monetary systems, or the creation, buying, and selling of goods and services.


activity that produces goods and services.


area of the United States consisting of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.


movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.


road constructed with metal tracks on which trains travel.

trade route

path followed by merchants or explorers to exchange goods and services.


movement of people or goods from one place to another.

West Coast

Pacific coast of the United States, usually excluding Alaska.