The Rise of Industrial America 1865-1900 Railroads and Big Business study guide




The Rise of Industrial America 1865-1900 Railroads and Big Business study guide


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The Rise of Industrial America 1865-1900 Railroads and Big Business study guide

The Rise of Industrial America 1865-1900:
Railroads and Big Business
Part II: Industry & Immigration

By 1900, the United States had emerged as the leading industrial power in the world. Its manufacturing output exceeded that of its three largest rivals, Great Britain, France, and Germany. The rapid growth of the US economy, averaging 4% a year, was the result of the combination of factors:

  • The country was a treasure-house of natural resources, including raw materials essential to industrialization-coal, iron ore, copper, lead, timber, and oil.
  • An abundant labor supply was, between 1865 and 1900, supplemented yearly by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
  • A growing population, combined with an advanced transportation network, made the US the largest market in the world for industrial goods.
  • Capital was plentiful, as Europeans with surplus wealth recognized a good investment and joined well-to-do Americans in funding the economic expansion.
  • The development of laborsaving   increased productivity. Over 440,000 new patents were granted by the federal government from 1860-1890.
  • Businesses benefited from friendly government policies that protected private property, subsidized railroads with land grants and loans, supported US manufacturers with protective tariffs, and refrained from either regulating business operations or heavily taxing corporate profits.
  • Talented entrepreneurs emerged during this era who were able to build and manage vast industrial and commercial enterprises.

The Business of Railroads
The dynamic combination of business leadership, capital, technology (Bessemer Process), markets, labor, and government support is especially evident in the development of the nation’s first big business-railroads. After the Civil War, railroad mileage increased more than fivefold in a 35-year period (from 35,000 miles in 1865 to 193,000 in 1900).
More than any other technological innovation or industrial achievement of the 19th century, the development of a nationwide railroad network had the greatest impact on American economic life. Railroads created a market for goods that was national in scale, and by so doing encouraged mass production, mass consumption, and economic specialization.
The resources used in railroad building promoted the growth of other industries, especially coal and steel.
Railroads also affected the routines of daily life. Soon after the American Railroad Association divided the country into four times zones in 1883, railroad time became standard time for all Americans.  Finally, the most important innovations of the railroads may have been the creation of the modern stockholder corporations and the development of complex structures in finance, business management, and the regulation of competition.

Eastern Trunk Lines
In the early decades of railroading (1830-1860), the building of dozens of separate local lines had resulted in different gauges (distance between tracks) and incompatible equipment. These inefficiencies were reduced after the Civil War through the consolidation of competing railroads into integrated trunk lines. Trunk lines was the major route between large cities; smaller branch lines connected the trunk lines with outlying towns.
“Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt used his millions earned from a steamboat business to merge local railroads into the NY Central Railroad (1867), which ran from New York City to Chicago and operated more than 4,500 miles of track (set standards of excellence and efficiency for the rest of the industry).


Western Railroads
The great age of railroad-building coincided with the settlement of the last frontier.
In fact, railroads themselves played a critical role in the trans-Mississippi West by

  • promoting settlement on the Great Plains
  • linking the West with the East and thereby creating one great national market.

Federal Land Grants
Recognizing that western railroads would lead the way to settlement, the federal government provided railroad companies with huge subsidies (when government gives money instead of taking it to help out a specific group of people- farming, debit cards, etc. a subsidy is generally a monetary grant given by government to lower the price faced by producers or consumers of a good, generally because it is considered to be in the public interest.) in the form of loans and land grants. Some 80 railroad companies received more than 170 million acres of public land, more than three times the acres given away under the Homestead Act. The land was given in alternate mile-square sections in a checkerboard pattern along the proposed route of the railroad. The government expected that the railroad would make every effort to sell the land to new settlers to finance construction. Furthermore, it was hoped that the completed railroads would both increase the value of government lands and provide preferred rate for carrying the mails and transporting troops.
There were also negative consequences to the subsidies. The land grants and cash loans

  • promoted hasty and poor construction
  • led to wide-spread corruption in all levels of government.

Insiders used construction companies, like the notorious Credit Mobilier to pocket huge profits, while bribing government officials and legislators. Protest against the land grants mounted in the 1880s when citizens discovered that railroads controlled half of the land in some western states.

Transcontinental Railroads
During the Civil War, Congress authorized land grants and loans for building of the first transcontinental railroad to tie California to the rest of the Union. The task was divided between two newly incorporated railroad companies. The Union Pacific was to build westward across the Great Plains, starting from Omaha, Nebraska while the Central Pacific took on the formidable challenge of laying track across mountain passes in the Sierras by pushing eastward from Sacramento, California. General Grenville Dodge directed construction of the Union Pacific using thousands of war veterans and Irish immigrants. Charles Crocker recruited 6,000 Chinese immigrants, who at enormous risk, blasted tunnels through the Sierras for the Central Pacific. Completing one of the great engineering feats of the 1800s, the two railroads came together on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, where a golden spike was ceremoniously driven into the ground to mark the linking of the Atlantic and the Pacific states.

Competition and Consolidation
New technologies and industries tend to be overbuilt. In addition to overbuilding, the railroads frequently suffered from mismanagement and outright fraud. Speculators like Jay Gould went into the railroad business for quick profits and made their millions by selling off assets and watering stocks (inflating the value of a corporation’s assets and profits before selling its stock to the public). In a ruthless scramble to survive, railroads competed by offering rebates and kickbacks to favored shippers while charging exorbitant (huge amounts) freight rates to smaller customers such as farmers. They also attempted to increase profits by forming pools, in which competing companies agreed secretly and informally fix rates and share traffic.
A financial panic in 1893 forced a quarter of all railroads into bankruptcy. J Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan and other bankers quickly moved in to take control of the bankrupt railroads and consolidate them. With competition eliminated, they could stabilize rates and reduce debts. By 1900, seven giant systems controlled nearly two-thirds of the nation’s railroads. A positive result was more efficient rail system. On the negative side, however, the system was controlled by a few powerful men like JP Morgan, who dominated the boards of competing railroad corporations through interlocking directorates. In effect, railroad service was now provided by regional monopolies.


The Rise of Big Business
Before the Civil War, the personal wealth of a few people operating in partnership financed most businesses, including many early factories (most were very small).
By 1900 everything had changed. Big business dominated the economy, operating vast complexes of factories, warehouses, offices, and distribution facilities.

The Role of Corporations
Big business would not have been possible without the corporation. A corporation is an organization owned by many people but treated by law as though it were a single person.
A corporation can own property, pay taxes, make contracts, and sue and be sued.  The people who own the corporation are called stockholders because they own shares of ownership called stock.  Issuing stock allows a corporation to raise large amounts of money for big projects while spreading out the financial risk. Beginning in the 1830’s, however, states began passing general incorporation laws, allowing companies to become corporations and issue stock without charters from the legislature.

Economies of Scale
With the money they raised from the sale of stock, corporations could invest in new technologies, hire a large workforce, and purchase many machines, greatly increasing their efficiency. This enabled them to achieve what is called economies of scale, in which corporations make goods more cheaply because they produce so much so quickly using large manufacturing facilities.
All businesses have two kinds of costs:
Fixed costs=Are costs a company has to pay, whether or not its operating (loans, mortgages, taxes, etc.)
Operating costs= Are costs that occur when running a company, such as paying wages and shipping charges and buying raw materials.
The small manufacturing companies that had been typical before the Civil War usually had very low fixed costs but very high operating costs. If sales dropped, it was cheaper to shut down and wait for better economic conditions. Big companies had very high fixed costs because it took so much money to build and maintain a factory. Compared to their fixed costs, big businesses had low operating costs. Wages and transportation costs were such a small part of a corporation’s costs that it made sense to keep operating, even during a recession.
In these circumstances, big corporations had several advantages:

  • They could produce goods more cheaply and efficiently
  • They could continue to operate in poor economic times by cutting prices to increase sales, rather than shutting down.
  • Many were also able to negotiate rebates from the railroads, thus lowering their operating costs even further.

Andrew Carnegie and Steel
The technological breakthrough that launched the rise of heavy industry was the discovery of a new process for making large quantities of steel. In the 1850’s, both Henry Bessemer in England and William Kelly in the US discovered that blasting air through molten iron produced high-quality steel (Great Lakes region emerged as leading steel producer).
Leadership of the fast-growing steel industry passed to a shrewd business genius, Andrew Carnegie, who in the 1850’s had worked his way up from being a poor Scottish immigrant to becoming the superintendent of a Pennsylvania railroad. In the 1870s, he started manufacturing steel in Pittsburgh and soon outdistanced his competitors by a combination of salesmanship and the use of the latest technology. Carnegies employed a business strategy known as vertical integration, by which a company would control every stage of the industrial process, from mining the raw materials to transporting the finished product. Successful business leaders like Carnegie also pushed for horizontal integration, or combining many firms engaged in the same type of business into one large corporation. Horizontal integration took place frequently as companies competed. When a company began to lose market share, it would often sell out to competitors to create a larger organization.
By 1880, for example, a series of buyouts had enabled Rockefeller’s Standard Oil to gain control of approximately 90% of the oil refining industry in the US. When a single company achieves control of an entire market, it becomes a monopoly.
Many American feared monopolies because they believed that a company with a monopoly could charge whatever it wanted for its products. They believed that monopolies had to keep prices low because raising prices would encourage competitors to reappear and offer the products for a lower price. By 1900 Carnegie Steel had climbed to the top of the steel industry, employing 20,000 workers and produced more steel than all the steel mills in Britain.

The Oil Industry
The first US oil well was drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859 in Pennsylvania. Only four years later, in 1863, John D Rockefeller, founded a company that would come to control most of the nation’s oil refineries by eliminating its competition.
Rockefeller took charge of the chaotic oil refinery business by applying the latest technologies and efficient practices. At the same time, as his company grew, he was able to extort (to obtain something by force) rebates from railroad companies and temporarily cut prices for Standard Oil kerosene to force rival companies to sell out  By 1881 his company- now known as the Standard Oil Trust-controlled 90% of the oil refinery business. The trust that Rockefeller put together consisted of various companies that he had acquired, all managed by a board of trustees that Rockefeller and Standard Oil controlled was known as horizontal integration (former competitors were brought under a single corporate umbrella and was able to control the supply and prices of oil products- he retired at $900 million). By eliminating waste in the production of kerosene, the Standard Oil monopoly was also able to keep prices low for consumers. Copying Rockefeller’s success, dominant companies in other industries (sugar, tobacco, leather, meat) also organized trusts.

By the late 1800’s many Americans had grown suspicious of large corporations and feared the power of monopolies. To preserve competition and prevent horizontal integration, many states made it illegal for one company to own stock in another without specific permission from the state legislature.
In 1882 Standard Oil Trust formed the first trust, a new way of merging businesses that did not violate the laws against owning other companies.
A trust is a legal concept that allows one person to manage another person’s property. The person who manages another person’s property is called a trustee.
Instead of buying a company outright, which was often illegal, Standard Oil had stockholders give their stocks to a group of Standard Oil trustees. In exchange the stockholders received shares in the trust, which entitled them to receive a portion of the trust’s profits.
Since the trustees did not own the stock but were merely managing it for someone else, they were not violating the law. This arrangement enabled the trustee to control a group of companies as if they were one large merged company.

 Antitrust Movement
The trusts came under widespread scrutiny and attack in the 1880s. Middle class citizens feared the trusts’ unchecked power, and urban elites (old wealth) resented the increasing influence of the new rich. After failing to curb trusts on the state level, reformers finally moved Congress to pass the Sherman Antitrust Act in 1890, which prohibited any “contract combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy in restraint of trade or commerce.” Although a federal law against monopolies was now on the books, it was too vaguely worded to stop the development of trusts in the 1890s.

Laissez-Faire Capitalism
The idea of government regulation of business was alien to the prevailing, economic, scientific, and religious beliefs of the 19th century: it was called laissez-faire.
As early as 1776, the economist Adam Smith had argued in he Wealth of Nations that business should be regulated, not by the government, but by the invisible hand (impersonal economic forces) of the law of supply and demand. This was the origin of the concept of laissez-faire. If government kept their hands off business would be motivated by their own self- interest to offer improved goods or services at low prices. Many American industrialists of the 19th century used this theory to justify their methods of doing business- even while they readily accepted the protection of high tariffs and federal subsidies.

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The Rise of Industrial America 1865-1900 Railroads and Big Business study guide