The Historical Geography of Transportation
Map 11 - The Transcontinental Rail Network, 1878
Grades 6-8 Lesson Plan - People, Goods, and Railroads  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 lesson students will explore the building of the United States' railroad network. Using the core map and primary documents, students will design documents proposing and advertising construction of a new railroad line.

By the end of this lesson students are expected to:

  1. compare population distribution and the density railroad network in 1878.
  2. identify the areas of expanding population density at the time of the core map.
  3. evaluate geographical and economic factors that influenced railroad expansion in the late nineteenth-century United States.

Key Terms
natural barrier, population density, population distribution, prospectus, railroad network

computer image or overhead of the core map, a modern classroom map of the United States, history textbook, Census data: 1870, 1880, examples of railroad advertisements and prospectuses (see Resources)

Four hours

Getting Started

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

  2. Discuss the differences between the states and territories in 1878 and modern state boundaries. Discuss whether your home state was a state or territory in 1878.

  3. Using data from the US Census Bureau from 1870 and 1880, enter the population for each state on a paper copy of the core map. (This can be done in small groups.)

  4. As a class, discuss the density of the railroad network in various parts of the country in 1878. Discuss how this pattern related to the distribution of population in the United States at that time. Brainstorm with the students the other factors that affected the density of railroad construction (e.g., the West was a more rugged country and harder to build railroads in it; the Midwest was flat, densely populated and had many farms that used railroads to carry their produce to market)

Developing the Lesson

  1. For homework, break the class into small working groups. Each group is to propose and justify the construction of a new railroad somewhere in the country in 1878. The route of the railroad must have a clearly defined terminus at both ends of the route and cross at least two state or territorial boundaries. The route of the railroad should consider the difficulties of crossing natural barriers such as waterways and mountains. The proposal should explain how any natural barriers will be overcome. The chosen routes may be, but need not be, railroads that were actually constructed after 1878.

  2. Using the examples supplied with this unit as models (see Resources), each group should create the following simulated documents: a prospectus (3 pages) for potential investors and an advertisement for immigrants. Both documents should address the geographical advantages of the route and should include a map of the new route explaining those advantages. Remind students that railroads carry both passengers and freight.

  3. Using the core map and simulated documents the groups present their work to the class.
Using a 1-4 scale (4=excellent, 3=well done, 2=satisfactory, 1=poor) assess student performance in creating the documents and presenting to the class:

For 4 points, the group goes beyond the assignment; i.e., it synthesizes more information than expected, or shows particularly incisive analysis. The oral presentation is well organized and presented.

For 3 points, the group does all that was asked for in the assignment in a thorough manner. The analyses in the prospectus and advertisement are sound, refer to geographic factors, and are well presented. The oral presentation is well organized and presented.

For 2 points, the group does most of what was asked for in the assignment in an acceptable manner. The analyses are organized well enough to be able to follow the argument. The oral presentation is loud enough for all in the room to hear it comfortably, but has some flaws in organization or presentation.

For 1 point, the group does not do what the assignment asked. They produce work that exhibits major flaws in analysis, or that is so disorganized as to make it difficult to follow, or that is full of errors

With the help of the local historical society or the state historical society students could do a brief Power Point (or similar software) presentation or display on the history of the coming of the railroad in their locality or state.

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