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Railroads have long had an integral connection to western politics. Federal legislation provided major incentives for the construction of the first four transcontinental railroads. The railroads created many of the towns and cities in the West and were celebrated as a major force fostering western development. In many newly created western states, the railroads exercised considerable influence over state and local politics for many generations. But as westerners came to realize how heavily dependent they were upon railroads, the railroad corporations quickly became a favorite political target.
Interest in building a railroad across the West arose as early as the 1840s. Before the Civil War, debates in Congress over a transcontinental railroad often were held up over the question of the route—both the South and the ...