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Same Town, Different Name

Winter 1995 | Volume 10 |  Issue 3

TO A CASUAL TRAVELER, THE NUMEROUS SMALL towns of the Great Plains, regularly spaced between tracts of cropland or rangeland, can seem mundane and unremarkable, each sleepy hamlet having its constellation of church steeples, grain elevators, and perpendicular streets. The names of the towns—Volga, New UIm, Ghent, Pulaski—hint at the residents’ varied backgrounds; yet despite this ethnic diversity, any trip across the Middle West, from the Mississippi River to the Rockies or from Saskatchewan to Texas, reveals much the same residential pattern. One town resembles another to the point where they often almost look as if they were created with a cookie cutter.

This sameness results from the way railroads colonized and developed the land a century ago. It was different from the East, where for the most part land was settled, then towns were established, then railroads came through to serve them. In the Middle West the process was reversed: railroads laid track, then established towns, then recruited settlers to populate them. The railroads decided where towns would be, what they would be called, and what they would look like. With their physical layouts not much changed after a hundred years, the quiet towns of today’s Middle West still epitomize the ideals of progress that characterized America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

THE MIDDLE West is a huge technological enterprise—planned, built, and populated by the railroads to perform the industry of agriculture

Until the 1850s rivers and canals were the country’s main arteries of transportation, and the waterways of the East provided easy access for settlers and merchants. Towns sprang up along major rivers, often as the creations of individual entrepreneurs. They expanded laterally along the riverbanks following the natural lay of the land, sometimes with a set plan and sometimes without. Such towns began as service and trading centers for settlers in the surrounding countryside.

As the line of settlement moved westward, however, rivers proved a far less effective method of transportation. There were not enough of them, to begin with, and those that did exist were often unsuitable for navigation (like Nebraska’s Platte River, “a mile wide and an inch deep”) or subject to flooding and droughts. Congress, seeking to encourage Western settlement, gave railroads huge grants of land between the 1850s and the 1870s in areas that later became some of the richest farming country in the world. At the same time, a wave of immigration and the Homestead Act of 1862 brought many new farmers to the region. The railroad’s transportation advantages, the opening of Western lands, and waves of settlers set the stage for the creation of the Middle West and its towns.

Railroad executives in Chicago, St. Paul, or St. Louis planned their lines according to the amount of freight they thought each region would generate. Towns were spaced at regular intervals to capture all the trade from farmers in the surrounding area. If towns were too far apart, a competing rail line could siphon off traffic by building its own towns nearby; if they were too close together, they would take one another’s business. On average, towns were established six miles apart, but this varied according to the type of farming the region supported. Towns in dairy country could be close together because each farm was fairly small; those in the open rangeland of the West tended to be farther apart. Ideally a farmer could haul a wagonload of grain to the local elevator and make it home again by dark.

Towns created by the railroads were very different from those built along rivers. Anyone with a boat can use a river, but train tracks are generally used by only a single railroad. This meant that railroad towns were largely dependent on the companies that had created them. Although they were not “company towns” like those in the mining or steel industries, they shared some of the problems of such places, being dominated by a single corporation hundreds or thousands of miles away. Towns located at the intersection of two competing lines had an advantage and often grew into cities.

Railroad towns looked different too. The railroads used a limited set of town plans along their lines, and one company’s plans looked much like another’s. River towns would spread out along the banks and then expand outward as they grew, since riverfront property was more valuable. Railroad towns, by contrast, were centered around a single main street, usually at right angles to the tracks (a design known as the T-town), because railfront property was valuable only to grain elevators and the railroad company itself.

The rail line was usually at one end of town, with most of the development occurring away from it. This kept accidents down by reducing the need to cross the tracks. It also created an area beyond the station and rail line called “the other side of the tracks.” These unincorporated areas attracted drifters, tramps, migrant workers, and others the locals found undesirable.

Whimsy often dictated the naming of the towns. Company executives and their wives christened them after themselves or after cities in Europe or the East. In 1866 an Illinois Central executive wrote to his wife: “I shall have two or three more towns to name very soon.… They should be short and easily pronounced. Frederic, I think, is a very good name.” In Nebraska, along the Burlington &c Missouri River line going west from Lincoln, towns were set up every ten miles or so in alphabetical order: Crete, Dorchester, Exeter, Fairmont, Grafton, Harvard, Inland, Juniata, Kenesaw, and Lowell. When the Missouri Pacific built its line through Kansas in the 1880s, it named fourteen towns after members of the champion St. Louis Browns baseball team, including Bushong (for Doc Bushong, catcher) and Latham (for Arlie Latham, third baseman). Street names were just as arbitrary. One plat used by several railroads was patterned on Philadelphia, with a square central park. Towns built with this plan even used the same street names as Philadelphia.


Names and designs were not the only things the railroads controlled. Because they owned much of the surrounding land, they could decide who would farm the nearby area and who would be allowed to open stores in a new town. Company officials had a clear idea of what type of people they wanted. They believed that nativeborn white Americans and immigrants from Britain were best suited to run businesses, while German, Scandinavian, and certain Eastern European immigrants would make better farmers. Hardworking Russian-Germans, who had emigrated a century earlier from Germany to the Russian steppes (which resemble the Great Plains), were particularly sought after as farmers but not as shopkeepers. Southern Europeans were thought of primarily as laborers; they were not encouraged to stray beyond the cities, mines, and factories.

Along with the town plan came all the stuff of industrial agriculture: creameries, grain elevators, stockyards, flour mills, slaughterhouses, and sawmills. These things were the reason for a town’s existence, since they generated the traffic that made the town (and the railroad) profitable. Even the smallest of stops had at least a grain elevator alongside the tracks; in the larger towns and cities, enough facilities accumulated to create little industrial parks. Eastern cities were quickly outgrowing the ability of their surrounding areas to supply food, so the growth of agriculture and ranching in the West and Middle West was a necessary concomitant of urban industrialization. The great cattle drives of American cowboy legend, the founding of hamlets in the Middle West, and the building of steel plants in Pennsylvania were all parts of the same phenomenon, a largescale capital investment in industry and economic expansion.

Still, the building of railroad towns involved more than just economics, for each one was a model city to those who planned it and those who called it home. Every tiny whistle stop had dreams of becoming a new Chicago. Yet at the same time, the way railroad towns were set up, with their numerous small businesses and staid residential lots, was based on a completely different model—an idealized vision of the early-nineteenth-century New England towns in which many American businessmen and politicians had grown up. In a time of rapid industrialization and efficient rail service, this model was outdated from the beginning. Each railroad town had an identical set of businesses: a general store, a butcher, a saloon, a hotel. Even the placement of these businesses was standardized. There are still hundreds of small towns throughout the Midwest where you can go to the corner of First and Main and see a bank one block down—provided the bank hasn’t folded. Smaller towns, far from centers of distribution, could not compete against their larger neighbors. As a result, the hamlets that were least favorably situated reached their peak population within a few years of their founding and declined thereafter.

By the middle of this century, with trucks, automobiles, and tractors widely available, the smaller railroad towns had become superfluous as the economic system that had built them and the railroads that had created them passed them by. Just as today’s biggest cities are struggling to deal with the loss of their industrial bases, so too are smaller towns scrambling to find new niches in the economic landscape.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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