Great Emigration – Railroad Agents

Where does the United States, a cash tight nation after the Civil War, get the money to invest in a transcontinental railroad?  With land.  But what does a rail company do with all that land? Sell it.  And so the bureaus of immigration were created and the role of the immigration agent was born.

Before the transcontinental railroads there were three ways to get from New York to San Francisco;

  1. A 140-day voyage around Cape Horne South America,
  2. A 40-day voyage by steamer first to Panama and across by rail and another steamer to San Francisco,
  3. A train to St. Louis followed by 25-days by stagecoach across harsh terrain.  (The first attempt to build the Panama Canal was by the French in 1881.)

Once the transcontinental railroad was completed a trip from New York to San Francisco took only 6 days.

In 1860, rail networks spanned from Iowa to Ohio to New York and Boston.  Rail companies were slowly spreading westward.  Lincoln decided to spur the transcontinental railroad.  The challenge was set to create a transcontinental railroad.

The railway companies received a land grant with each piece of track laid.  First, they received a 400-foot right of way with the tracks.  Second, as part of the Pacific Railroad Acts, they received 10 square miles of land for each mile of track that didn’t go through existing cities.  Each mile of rail meant 6,400 acres of land for the railroad.  Put another way, the entire land grant was the size of Texas.

In order to sell the land, the railroads created land departments.  The land departments were responsible for actually selling the land to settlers.  Average prices were $2 to $8 per acre.  The land department would provide site visits with discounted rail travel, lodging, and even entertainment along the way, in order to entice a purchase.  At purchase time, they arranged credit terms.  Land was promoted for almost every state west of the Mississippi River; Iowa, Nebraskathe DakotasKansas, etc.

The railroads also created bureaus of immigration and hired immigration agents to promote migration and emigration to the western frontier.  Agents waited for ships from Europe docking at eastern seaboard docks and spoke of the opportunity in the west.  Railroads even stationed agents in Europe, specifically London and Liverpool, to catch those waiting to board ships to promote conversations aboard ship.  They also had offices in Holland, Germany, Sweden, and Finland to take advantage of situations in those countries. These agents were not looked upon favorably in the countries where they operated.

Florida Land Brochure
With transportation routes between North American and Western Europe
From the David Rumsey Map Collection
(Click for view you can zoom in on)

The immigration agents were usually businessmen, but acted more like salesmen.  The agents would talk up the towns along the railroad.  They talked of fertile lands, great opportunity and streets that were paved with gold.  In many cases they would often write articles or take ads in local papers.  

Their tactics were not necessarily scams.  They often did embellish features of the area to get more people to move.  But the railroad needed the security and commerce that successful towns along their route could provide. 

As the railroad moved westward, many towns emerged in its wake.  Unfortunately several have since become ghost towns.

Major dates for transcontinental railroads:

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