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Railroad Land Grants

People had long debated the role of the federal government in encouraging the development of roads, canals, and railroads. This debate continued when the U.S. government decided it wanted a transcontinental railroad. It had to find a way to stimulate private industry to build one. Railroad companies were not in the business of taking on unprofitable projects. To promote the expansion of the railroad, the federal government passed the Pacific Railroad Act that provided land grants to railroads.

The government gave public lands to railroad companies in exchange for building tracks in specific locations. As railroads expanded into new territory, people believed that settlers would follow. Then the value of land in that area would increase. The land could then be sold and the railroad company would profit. The federal government assumed any money made by the railroad would help finance further expansion of the tracks.

The U.S. government surveyed the public lands and divided them into one-mile square sections. The land grants gave the railroads every other section. The federal government kept the other sections. Those public lands could then be used for homesteading or sold for a profit. Those who supported the land grants believed that everyone would win.

The program of land grants to railroads remained controversial. Since most railroads had  monopoly in a specific region, they would eventually make a profit shipping goods to and from communities. Critics of the land grant program felt that the railroads were receiving too much of a subsidy. Between 1850 and 1870, seven percent of the land in the United States was given to 80 railroads. Most of this land was in the west. In Kansas, railroad companies were given one-sixth of the land in our state.

Entry: Railroad Land Grants

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: March 2011

Date Modified: May 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.