American Legal History
-- PaulineAbijaoude - 25 Apr 2018

The age of Congressional grants of land to railroads matured in the 1850s and rapidly declined in favor by the 1870s. This short period does not encompass the entire history of Congress and its land grants to railroads, only the period that took these projects from heroic visions to villainization. But the "action and reaction" between railways and the government began with the early railroad projects and remained well into the following century as the railroads lobbied for better terms and more funds while the government sought the money it was owed. (1)

For the most part, railroads were privately owned even from the beginning but they sought land donations from Congress, who granted them the land directly, or indirectly through the states who in turn granted the land to the railroads. (2) Congress began granting railroads right-of-way through public lands since 1835. (3) In addition to roads, the companies were given lands for depot sites and terminals as well as the ability to partake in the "stone, timber and earth" from adjoining government land for building and repairing the tracks. (4) However, almost no railroad received all the land it required from Congress, and some received too little to succeed. The Burlington railroad in Nebraska is possibly the only railroad to receive all of the lands it required to build its milage in a land grant. (5)

By the mid-19th century, the West was demanding railroads, sure of the potential for economic growth. (6) Capital from the East and Europe was funneling into railroad construction in the West and plans for new lines were constantly produced. (7) In 1850, the Illinois Central grant was passed and this began a "new epoch" by opening the floodgates to land grants for railroads.(8) The Illinois Central grant was quite profitable to the railroad and other states wanted the same opportunity for themselves.(9)

In total, Congress gave 127,337,284 acres of public land for railroad construction.(10) This meant that, next to States, the railroads were the greatest dispensers of land in the United States.(11) As the decade progressed, the power of the railroad companies grew. James Bryce observed in THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH, "the railroad kings have of late years swayed the fortunes of American citizens more than the politicians.(12)

From the start, there were discussions of a Pacific line, but in the early years of the railroad mania, these suggestions and bills were dismissed as "nothing more than reveries of overheated imaginations." (13)

Finally, in 1862, Congress passed a land bill for a Pacific railroad.(14) However, by about 1870, opposition, and public outcry against railroads became so strong as to indicate an end of the era.(15) The sources of public frustration were numerous. With time, it became clear that relatively little desirable and inexpensive land was left for settlement.(16) In 1870, the House found that its policy of granting subsidies to railroads and other corporations "ought to be discontinued" and that public lands of the United States should be held for the exclusive purpose of securing homesteads to actual settlers.(17)

As soon as the land-grant movement lost momentum, there was a cry for forfeitures of the grants.(18) The bills for forfeiture were regular and numerous moving forward.(19) The history of the government and the grants it provided to railroads did not end in the 1870s, rather the government and the people were left dealing with the consequences of the land grants and the power they had created in railroad companies.

The Illinois Central

By the mid-1830s "hardly a state in the Mississippi Valley" was immune from citizen demands for railroad and canal construction projects.(20) The Western frontier lands wanted land donations from the federal government.(21) These communities were small still and could not always get funding or donated land for their desired projects. Illinois tried to undertake a major railroad project but it ended in disaster. Fraud and collusion existed from all sides and little work was done for the money spent.(22) Once the panic of 1837, and then the ensuing depression, hit, the program was abandoned and the State was left with crippling debt and interest that exceeded its entire revenue.(23)

A number of promoters were interested in building up the town of Cairo and connecting it to Galena through a central railroad, securing a charter from the State of Illinois in 1843 and creating a railroad company.(24) However, the charter protected the state's interests too well and the promoters could not raise the necessary capital.(25) There was then an effort to procure a grant of preemption rights from Congress in order to assist the company in financing the railroad.(26) This effort was blocked by Stephen Douglas who instead wanted a grant of land from Congress, and a change in route so that Chicago and not Cairo, is the feeder for the railroad.(27)

The Pacific Railroad



1 : see, Lewis Henry Haney, A CONGRESSIONAL HISTORY OF RAILWAYS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1950-1887, in Economics and Political Science Series, Vol.6 No.1, pp. 7-9, 88 (1910)(Table showing payments and balance due)

2 : Benjamin H. Hibbard,A HISTORY OF THE PUBLIC LAND POLICIES 241 (1939)


4 : Hibbard, 242

5 : Gates, 359

6 : Id. at 356

7 : Id

8 : Hibbard, 244

9 : Haney, 18

10 : Gates, 379

11 : Id..

12 : James Bryce, THE AMERICAN COMMONWEALTH, Vol.II, p. 407 (1888)

13 : Maury Klein, UNION PACIFIC, Vol.1 (2006)

14 : Pacific Railway Act of 1862, attached.

15 : Haney, 20

16 : Hibbard, 253

17 : Cong. Globe, 42nd congress, 1849-1871, p.2085

18 : Haney, 23

19 : Id. at 25


21 : Gates, 356

22 : Grant, 23

23 : =id.=

24 : Id. at 26

25 : Id.

26 : 28

27 : Id. 28-29


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Attachments Attachments

  Attachment Action Size Date Who Comment
pdf PacificRailwayActof1862.pdf props, move 3401.7 K 25 Apr 2018 - 23:57 PaulineAbijaoude Fn14 - Pacific Railway Act of 1862
pdf The_Congressional_Globe_2095.pdf props, move 606.6 K 25 Apr 2018 - 23:58 PaulineAbijaoude Fn 17 - The Congressional Globe, 2095
r1 - 25 Apr 2018 - 23:59:58 - PaulineAbijaoude
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