The Historical Geography of Transportation
Map 11 - The Transcontinental Rail Network, 1878
Grades 3-5 Lesson Plan - Prairie Schooner and Iron Horse  Map 11 Main Page 

Core Map: "Rand, McNally & Co.'s United States" in Rand McNally & Co.'s Business Atlas, (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1878). Newberry Library Call No.: Rand McNally Collection, Atlas Collection, Commercial Atlas 1878 (Printable PDF version of the Core Map)

Resources related to Map 11.
Curator's Notes for Map 11.

In this unit students will explore the impact of steam power on transportation in the United States. Using the core map and primary documents, students will compare the time and effort involved in travelling from the Mississippi to Oregon in 1848 and thirty years later.

By the end of this lesson students are expected to:

  1. identify and explain major symbols on the core map.
  2. read a railroad timetable.
  3. evaluate the impact of railroads on the transportation in the West.

Key Terms
natural barrier, pattern, railroad network, scale, timetable

computer image or overhead of the core map, modern classroom map of the United States, image of The Bridge of the Great Rock Island Route Over the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill, Condensed Time Card for 1877, Core Map 5 - Fremont Surveys the Road from Missouri to Oregon, 1843, Palace Car Life on the Pacific Railroad, and Traveling the Oregon Trail as a Child

Two hours

Getting Started

  1. Discuss with students the origin and maker of the core map (see Curator's Notes).

  2. Display the core map, and identify the symbols it uses for the following geographic features: railroads, state boundaries, rivers, lakes, oceans, and mountains.

  3. Point to and discuss briefly the following place names: your home state, its capital, the nearest city with a railroad line; Indian Territory; New York; Chicago; Seattle; the Great Lakes; the Mississippi River; British Possessions; and others at the teacher's discretion. (Note that if you live in the Dakotas or Oklahoma, these were not yet states and appear differently on the core map. Several other states were still territories in 1878, but already had their modern names and boundaries.)

  4. Point out and discuss the railroads and the patterns formed by the railroad network. For example, note that there is a very dense network in the East and Midwest, fewer in the Southeast, and fewer still in the Western half of the country. Brainstorm with the students the reasons why the railroad pattern looked that way (e.g., there were fewer people in the areas where there were fewer railroads; the West was a more rugged country and harder to build railroads in; the Midwest was flat, densely populated and had many farms that used railroads to carry their produce to market).

  5. Discuss the kinds of natural barriers travelers had to pass to get across the country (e.g., rivers, mountains).

  6. One the most difficult of these barriers for railroads was the Mississippi River. In 1856, only one railroad bridge existed across this river. By 1878, the river was bridged in 14 places between Minneapolis and St. Louis (see Curators Notes). Zoom in on the portion of the core map showing the Mississippi River to identify where these bridges were. Select "Railroad River Crossings" from the menu on the core and then click on number 2 to show an image of a railroad bridge across the Mississippi from this period ("The Bridge of the Great Rock Island Route Over the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Ill").
Developing the Lesson
  1. Display and explain to the students how to read the supplied Condensed Time Card for 1877 (see Curator's Notes for explanations). Have each student study the timecard and calculate how much time (in days and hours) it would take for a railroad passenger to complete the trip from Chicago to San Francisco via the Chicago & Northwestern, Union Pacific, and Central Pacific Railroads. The students should assume that the passenger will leave the train and stay overnight in a hotel in Omaha, Cheyenne, and Salt Lake City.

  2. Display or pass out to the class copies of Core Map 5, showing a portion of the Oregon Trail.

  3. Have the students locate the area shown on Core Map 5 on Core Map 11. Discuss the differences in the scales of the map. (The two maps are roughly the same size, but Core Map 11 shows all of the United States, while Core Map 5 shows only a portion of the present state of Idaho.)

  4. Referring to Core Map 5, discuss the amount of time it took Fremont's explorers to travel across southern Idaho from Fort Hall to "Fort Boisée" (Fort Boise) in 1843.

  5. On Core Map 11, have the students find the portion of the Oregon Trail depicted on Core Map 5. Please note that Fort Hall appears on Core Map 11, but Fort Boise does not. (Fort Boise is not to be confused with modern Boise, the capital of Idaho. Fort Boise was located just inside the modern state of Oregon near the confluence of the Snake and Boise Rivers.)

  6. Discuss with the students which railroad routes travelers might have used to reach Oregon in 1878. (Note that neither the Northern Pacific nor the Union Pacific/Central Pacific route followed the route of the Oregon Trail.)

  7. Locate with the students Salt Lake City, Utah and Winnemucca, Nevada on Core Map 11, noting that the distances between the two places on the Union Pacific/Central Pacific route is roughly the same as the distance between Fort Hall and Fort Boise. Referring to their work step 1 above and to the Condensed Timecard for 1877, discuss with the students the amount of time it would take to travel from Salt Lake City to Winnemucca by railroad in 1878. How does it compare to travel times on the Oregon Trail? As an extension of this activity, referring to a modern road map or atlas, you could discuss how long it takes to travel across southern Idaho or from Salt Lake City to Winnemucca by car today.

  8. Pass out to the students and discuss descriptions of two different trips across the continent: Palace Car Life on the Pacific Railroad and Traveling the Oregon Trail as a Child.

  9. For homework, have students prepare a three-page essay comparing the experiences of Oregon Trail travelers in the 1840s and 1850s with the experiences of travelers on a transcontinental railroad in the 1870s or 1880s. Students should compare the pace of travel, the comfort of travel, and make some comments on the impact of railroads on travel to and settlement in the West.
Using a 1-4 scale (4=excellent, 3=well done, 2=satisfactory, 1=poor) assess student performance as follows:

For 4 points, the student's essay addresses all of the required issues (pace of travel, comfort of travel, vehicles used, and impact of the railroads on travel and settlement) and goes beyond the assignment; i.e. he or she has synthesizes more information than expected, or has shown particularly incisive analysis.

For 3 points, the student addresses all of the required issues in the assignment in a thorough manner. The analysis is sound, supported by specific examples, and clearly organized. The work is correct and neat, and exhibits only few if any spelling or grammatical errors.

For 2 points, the student has addressed most of the required issues. The work is, for the most part, correct and neat, and may exhibit some spelling or grammatical errors. The oral presentation is loud enough for all in the room to hear it comfortably.

For 1 point, the student does not do what the assignment asked. He or she produces work that exhibits major flaws in analysis, or that includes little or no specific examples/data, or that is so disorganized as to make it difficult to follow, or that is full of errors.

Using Core Map 11 and Core Map 5, pictures of wagon trains and steam trains, and materials from library research students can construct a poster or online exhibit comparing the experiences of immigrants moving to Oregon in the 1840s and in the 1870s.

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