Writing Home: Commentary

5. Railroad Sponsored Ads and Promotional Material

The arrival of transcontinental railroads in the Pacific Northwest during the 1880s was one of the main turning points in regional history.  The Northwest had been integrated into global trading networks since the 1780s, when British vessels began carrying away sea otter pelts to China; and it had been integrated into far western trading networks since the time of the Gold Rush, when California’s demand for produce and lumber had sent ships to regional shores.  Yet as late as 1880 the Pacific Northwest remained largely isolated from both the main currents of the global economy and the bulk of the population in the United States.  From the writings of such people as James Swan, Americans knew that the Northwest possessed resources to be exploited.  Yet other parts of the country generally provided plenty of the same kinds of resources the Northwest had to offer, and the region remained inaccessible to most people.  Consider, for example, the extent of homesteading in the Northwest.  Between 1862 and 1880, only 9,800 people in Oregon and 9,500 in Washington filed claims to land; by contrast, 62,000 and 59,000 filed claims, respectively, in Minnesota and Nebraska—states located closer to, and served better by railroads from, eastern centers of population. 

The population of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington in 1880 amounted to no more than 283,000.  After the arrival of transcontinental lines during the 1880s, the number of people grew quickly.  By 1910 the three states contained more than 2 million residents.  The substantial increase resulted in large part from the arrival of railroads, which brought more people to settle in the region, more investments in the extractive economy, more awareness of opportunities, and more of a means to increase exports to the rest of the world.  No longer so remote, the Northwest became even more integrated into the networks of the global economy, the commerce of the United States, and the migratory patterns of domestic and foreign populations.  Local boosters exuded confidence that the railroads would elevate the regional economy, and perhaps even put the Northwest on a par with other parts of the country.  They were gratified to get the attention of big capitalists from the East and Europe, to be the focus of advertising campaigns, to become the destination for thousands of new migrants.  They embraced the new cities and new commerce that railroads helped to create.  However, many boosters’ hopes were at least partially misplaced.  Railroads may have liberated the Northwest from its isolation and accelerated its pace of settlement, but they brought with them their own constraints and limitations.  In some ways they heightened the sense that the Northwest was the colony, the hinterland, of other places.

If the railroads exported the Northwest (or at least its products) to the East, they also imported the East to the Northwest, in at least two senses.  First, railroads transported to the remote region the social and cultural and economic and political traits that characterized Gilded Age America.  By conquering distances between different corners of the country, railroads helped to disseminate the modernizing ways of the late nineteenth century.  The Northwest received as a result an intense dose of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration—and it came at a formative time when social institutions were beginning to jell.  Outside of the Willamette Valley, industrialism found few entrenched institutions within Anglo-American society that were capable of resisting or buffering its ways.  Second, railroads came with strings attached, and these strings took the form of conditions determined by people back East.  No western company, town, territory, or state had the resources to build a transcontinental line itself.  As a result, the region relied upon cooperation between the federal government and finance capitalists to obtain rail connections, and it had to live with the terms that those eastern “benefactors” laid down.  It had to accept, for example, the bargain struck between the U.S. Congress and the Northern Pacific Railroad during the early 1860s which granted the company immense tracts of lands in the Northwest as an incentive for building the line.  Most of all, it had to learn to live with the enormous influence that railroad companies exerted on western societies.

Railroad companies quickly became the most powerful economic actors in the Pacific Northwest, and they toiled to shape its economic and social development to their benefit.  They built or expanded towns, for example, where it best suited (or profited) them, often leaving bypassed sites to wither.  As the largest private landowners in the region, they wielded enormous influence over the distribution and utilization of land.  They exerted enormous power in politics in order to look after their interests.  Moreover, they became the biggest promoters of the Pacific Northwest.  They distributed millions of flyers and pamphlets and broadsides to advertise the area, not just in the eastern states but also in Europe.  And they hired hundreds of agents to encourage emigration to the Northwest—particularly by the “right” types of people.

Railroads profited in multiple ways from the population influx that they encouraged.  For example, they charged fares to passengers migrating to the region; they sold land to many of the newcomers; and they shipped back east the produce or natural resources that the newly enlarged population generated.  They also formed companies to develop the region’s land and resources on a much larger scale.  The amount of economic activity increased dramatically because of their arrival; yet the powerful railway companies naturally controlled much of that activity, making it hard for Northwesterners to feel that they had been “liberated,” in economic terms.  Local and class interests very quickly emerged in the Northwest to challenge the power of the eastern-based corporations that ran the railroads.  (For works on the regional influence of railroads, and on the radical response to the industrialization and immigration they provoked, see Carlos A. Schwantes [1993, 1979]).

As boosters, railroad companies likely produced more texts about the Pacific Northwest than any other entity.  And although they had in mind many audiences for their efforts—capitalists, tourists, immigrants, locals—some messages were consistent from one tract to the next.  Railroad companies toiled to instill confidence in themselves as business enterprises and land managers.  More importantly, they worked to assure readers that the Pacific Northwest would be a good place for newcomers and investments. Never was heard a discouraging word.  Booster accounts portrayed the land as fertile, the towns as prosperous, the weather as benign, the scenery as picturesque, and the society as civilized. Over and over, railroad company accounts pictured the Pacific Northwest as a promised land.  Naturally, the region could not always live up to the expectations created by promotional material, producing sharp disappointment for some (Schwantes 1987:51-53).

The accounts included here were produced by publicity agents for the Northern Pacific Railroad, the first to complete a cross-country line to the Northwest in 1883. The first selection consists of three articles from the very first issue of The Northwest, a monthly magazine that the Northern Pacific began publishing the year the line was completed. (The magazine went through a series of name changes, to Northwest Illustrated Monthly Magazine and Smalley’s Magazine among others.)  It is worth noting that this magazine was produced out of New York and St. Paul, not the Pacific Northwest, and that it described a region including the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming, because the railroad had interests in those territories as well as in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.  The brief articles here include “Our Programme,” which laid out the goals of the publication; “To English Farmers,” which depicted opportunities expected to lure respectable immigrants from the United Kingdom; and “The Big Bend Country,” which suggested the attractions of Spokane County, Washington Territory.  The last article, reprinted by railroad boosters from The Sprague Herald, a small-town newspaper, illustrates how local boosters’ messages overlapped with those of much bigger concerns.

The second selection consists of excerpts from another publication commissioned by the Northern Pacific Railroad—The Great Northwest: A Guide-Book and Itinerary for the Use of Tourists and Travelers over the Lines of the Northern Pacific Railroad… (1886). Readers of The Great Northwest read about the towns and natural resources they would come to as they followed the Northern Pacific line from east to west. It indeed served “tourists and travelers” aboard trains headed toward Puget Sound, but it also introduced the lands between St. Paul, Minnesota and Seattle, Washington to any prospective investor or immigrant who could be tempted to pay attention. Again, the guidebook emphasized the benefits and advantages of life in the Northwest—the fertile soil, the civilized towns, the ample rainfall, the inspiring scenery—while downplaying the risks.  Included here are the introduction to The Great Northwest, which details the mission of the publication; and sections depicting the river route of travel between The Dalles and Portland, and the rail route of travel between Portland and Tacoma and Seattle.

Reading the Region Home Writing Home Main Writing Home: Commentary Writing Home: Texts
Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest