Click each illustration for a larger view
The railroads connected Texas to St. Louis, Chicago,
and points East.
As the rails spread across Texas, towns like Harlingen grew as regional shipping and distribution centers.
A sleepy village of adobe huts called El Paso was transformed within a decade to a metropolis of 10,000 people.
Cotton was king in Texas in the late 19th century. Farmers sold their crops to middlemen who used the telegraph to make deals with textile mills on the East Coast, then shipped the cotton out by rail.
Angry Texas farmers deserted the Democratic Party and challenged the existing order though the Farmer's Alliance and the Populist Party.
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The Railroads and Urbanization
After the Civil War, the impulse for social reform was spent, and the issue of women's rights receded into the background for the next twenty years. But an economic transformation of enormous magnitude would eventually bring the cause of women back to the forefront.
Even before the Civil War, the United States was evolving from an agrarian society into what would become the world's leading industrial power. With the war over, the change accelerated, and the nation embarked on a period of unprecedented economic growth. The list of inventions and technological innovations is almost endless. From sewing machines to Bessemer steel, from the ever-growing telegraph network to the first skyscrapers, from the electric light bulb to the telephone, the face of America was changing forever.
For Texas, with its vast distances, the most significant change was the development of the railroads. Only 470 miles of track had been constructed in Texas before the Civil War. The war brought economic ruin, and it was not until about 1880 that growth in Texas exploded. By 1887, 4000 miles of railroad had been built, including two transcontinental lines. The railroads, controlled by out-of-state corporations, became the most powerful industrial force in the state. The building of Texas railroads continued at a rapid pace through the 1920s.
Now that Texas cotton and other agricultural goods could roll to St. Louis and beyond, business opportunities increased. The telegraph followed the rail lines, ending the isolation experienced by earlier generations of Texans. Trips that once took days by stagecoach over muddy roads now took only hours by rail. Towns like Sealy, Dalhart, Amarillo, Texarkana, Temple, and many others sprang up along the rails to serve the needs of increased commerce. The railroads created not only towns, but cities. Dallas first grew as the western terminus of the railroads in Texas. Fort Worth built the stockyards to ship cattle. El Paso became the gateway to Mexico and California.
The effect on Texas was profound. Before 1880, Texas had only eleven towns with a population over 4000 people. By 1890 there were 20; by 1900 there were 36; by 1910, 49, and by 1920, 70 towns boasted at least 4000 people, with Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, El Paso, and San Antonio each surpassing 50,000.
The Panic of 1893
With such a boom in progress, perhaps it was inevitable that it would collapse because of speculation and debt. In 1893, a financial panic swept the nation as investors tried to bail out of companies that were obviously unsound. In the financial collapse that followed, nearly 15,000 companies, 500 banks, and 30 percent of the country's railroads failed or became insolvent. America entered a three-year depression, marked by violent strikes and great personal suffering. Unemployment reached 18 percent. The average wage fell by 10 percent.
Texas was hard hit by the depression. Farm prices were lower than what it cost farmers to grow their crops. Deflation, in which prices fell while interest rates remained high, worked great hardship. Farmers were caught in a spiral of debt. Many of them lost their land and were forced to become sharecroppers on the land they once owned. The farmers fought back. Political movements such as the Farmer's Alliance and the Populist Party had a significant impact on Texas politics for a few years, leading to the election of James S. Hogg as governor in 1890 and the formation of the Railroad Commission.
Although the Populist movement faded as the economy improved, its impact lingered. Across Texas, people had questioned the existing order of things and asked hard questions. Whose responsibility was it to attack the problems in society? Who should make the laws? Who should vote?
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