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Notes from the Paynesville Historical Society. . .

Battle of the railroads

By Mark Braun

In 1889, there was a battle waging in our small mid-western town, as in many towns and cities across the country. It was not a war of arms. It was the battle of the railroad. The battle of who could reach the west first. Laying track from coast to coast was a huge accomplishment. In a few short years since the railroad really became mainstream, the question was no longer if it would happen, the question was when and what company would accomplish it first. There was, however, the actual decision of what route to take.

The topography of the United States varies greatly from coast to coast. There are plains, mountains, forests, and wetlands. All of which had to be covered in the design of a cross-country route. Around 1850, there were four expeditions funded by the U.S. Congress, each one was to explore a different route. This way one would show superior and easiest access to the west.

The only problem was the leaders of the expeditions, who included Isaac I. Steven who led the northern expedition, Captain John Williams Gunnison who led the central route, Lieutenant Amiel Weeks Whipple who explored the 38th parallel, and Jefferson Davis who explored the 32nd parallel southern route, were no more experienced in railroad engineering as the congressmen who sent them out. This posed a huge problem. All of them came back with a possible route for the railroad. Their reports only gave rough estimates of the information engineers would actually need to build a railroad. In the end, it just came down to a battle of wills and funding.

The Union Pacific and Central Pacific were the first companies to reach the goal of going cross country. They did it by choosing the central route, one used years before by settlers in wagons moving to the west.

Before the railroad made traveling easy, there was a huge struggle in getting the tracks going. With many setbacks, topographical problems, and unknowledgeable explorers, it was a rough start. In the end, it made life easier for travelers and settlers, and gave life to many little towns just like Paynesville along the way.

Please come and visit the Paynesville Area Museum to learn more about the railroad and early Paynesville.