Railroad Conventions

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RAILROAD CONVENTIONS were phenomena of the early years of railroad promotion. They were held before the railroads were built rather than after their completion, and they were composed not only of railway builders but also, and principally, of the public-spirited citizens of their vicinities.

The conventions were both a symptom and a cause of popular enthusiasm for better means of transportation. They probably did not greatly stimulate private investment in railroad securities, but they undoubtedly did yeoman service in the numerous campaigns for state or local aid. It was hoped in many cases that they would serve to reconcile conflicting interests and aspirations concerning routes and termini; nevertheless, they could only demonstrate or promote popular interest in particular projects.

Railroad conventions spread across the country in the antebellum period. Perhaps the most notable were the three great Pacific Railroad conventions in Saint Louis and Memphis in October 1849 and in Philadelphia in April 1850. They were held to demonstrate the strength of the popular demand for federal aid for a railroad to the Pacific coast, to formulate a practicable plan of financing it, and to assert claims for the eastern terminus; the Philadelphia convention supported the pretensions of the Saint Louis convention. But Congress gave their resolutions scant courtesy.

One of the most influential gatherings of the sort ever held was the Southwestern Railroad Convention in New Orleans in January 1852. It helped to launch Louisiana and New Orleans on ambitious programs of state and municipal aid and to make clear the broad outlines of a proper railroad system for the whole Southwest. The Pacific Railroad conventions in Sacramento, in September 1859 and February 1860, sought to unite the Pacific coast in support of a central route and to persuade the legislatures of California, Oregon, and Washington Territory to make provision for getting the western leg of the proposed railroad started. The Southwestern Convention in Memphis, in November 1845, was interested primarily in the improvement of western rivers; but it also endorsed the major railroad projects of the Southwest and broached the subject of a southern route for a Pacific railroad. Similarly the Chicago Rivers and Harbors Convention, in July 1847, gave secondary concern to railroad projects for connecting the East and the West.


Ely, James W. Railroads and American Law. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

Fogel, Robert W. Railroads and American Economic Growth. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964.

Hastings, Paul. Railroads: An International History. New York: Praeger, 1972.

Ward, James A. Railroads and the Character of America: 1820–1887. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

R. R.Russel/a. g.

See alsoGrand Central Terminal ; Railways, Interurban ; Transcontinental Railroad, Building of ; Transportation and Travel .