Handsome Falls, 1902
The antecedents of the steam-powered locomotive pictured above were Thomas Newcomen's steam-powered pump, of 1705, and James Watt's improvements on it in 1763. Both, larger than this locomotive, and far less powerful, were developed in Great Britain. The first steam locomotive was put into operation in Wales in 1804, in the service of the mining industry.
The first practical railroad service—with a permanent roadbed of iron rails set on wooden ties, over which a steam-powered locomotive pulled freight- and passenger-cars riding on flanged steel wheels—was put into operation in England in 1825. The history of railroads in the U.S. began five years later, when the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad was established to meet the rapidly increasing demand for faster, more economic transportation of goods and passengers than the Erie Canal could provide.
As the technology of the new mode of long-distance transportation improved, rails and steam reached farther and farther westward, especially after the Civil War. By 1869 the Union Pacific Railroad connected the Mississippi Valley with the Pacific Coast. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe RR opened commercial traffic through the Southwest in 1880.
The first railroad through the Northwest, some of it paralleling Lewis and Clark's water-level path, was the Northern Pacific, completed in 1883. Ten years later, James J. Hill's Manitoba Railroad, later called the Great Northern, spanned the northwestern prairies and mountains from Minneapolis to Puget Sound. Meanwhile, the Utah and Northern Railroad connected the Union Pacific with the copper-mining city of Butte, Montana.
The Montana Central Railroad bridge seen here was built across the Missouri River above Handsome Falls in 1901. That year, the Montana Central began linking J. J. Hill's Great Northern Railway mainline, near the Canadian border, with Butte, 125 miles southwest of Great Falls.
In the United States, the last steam locomotive was built in 1953. Some of the former Montana Central trackage today is used by the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad; the rest has been abandoned.
Railroads facilitated settlement of the West by stimulating the growth of cattle ranching and wheat farming, as well as the mining and lumber industries, and providing access to markets in the eastern U.S. and Europe. They also connected the U.S. with markets on the Pacific Rim. That was the objective that had driven generations of entrepreneurs and explorers to search for—as Jefferson put in his instructions to Lewis—"the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce."1
1. Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783-1854 (2nd ed., 2 vols.; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 1:61.