Railroads & Settlement
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The Decline of Railroads in Nebraska

The railroads played a key role in the settlement of Nebraska. More than 11 railroads in Nebraska received money or free land from both the federal and state governments. Yet in 1915 there were more miles of railroad in Nebraska than there are today. What happened?

railroad workers, perhaps in Bennington, NE, circa 1889
Railroad workers laying track, possibly in Bennington, NE area, ca. 1889.
Courtesy Bennington Historical Society

There are a variety of reasons for the dramatic change in the fortunes of the railroads. The biggest factor is that transportation technology overtook the trains. In 1915 there were no paved highways and few cars and trucks. Almost everyone traveled by train. Today most people travel by automobile or airplane. Trucks today haul much more freight than railroads. There has been a lot of consolidation of smaller railroad companies into large companies like the Union Pacific. The railroad still plays an important role in hauling coal, grain, and other freight, but it does not have the monopoly it enjoyed during the homestead era when people had no choice when it came to transporting themselves or their products.

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