This Week In History: Jan. 31 – Feb. 6 

The Sunset Route, completed on Feb. 5, 1883, runs from New Orleans to Southern California. It was built to include Southern and Southwestern states who were not able to use the transcontinental railroad. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons.

“Downton Abbey,” “Bridgerton,” “Outlander” — everyone loves a good period piece, complete with scandal, status and several tight corsets. With HBO Max’s long-awaited series premiere of “The Gilded Age,” coming out last week (stay tuned for The Daily Campus’ review later this week), I decided it would be fun to highlight major events of the era to show what a turbulent period this period drama is showcasing. So let’s dive in! 

On Feb. 5, 1883, the Southern Pacific Railroad completes the transcontinental “Sunset Route.” 

Railroads were the key to the future in the late 19th century. After the Civil War had ravaged the nation, railroads tied the divided country back together by improving transportation on a scale never seen before. California was the ultimate goal of the railroad companies, as few could build past the Rocky Mountains when heading west.  

The need for a transcontinental railroad was realized in the 1840s when the Gold Rush spurred migration westward to modern-day California. Tensions between the North and South delayed progress on a land route over the continent until the Union Pacific Company completed the first transcontinental railroad which ran from Omaha to San Francisco.  

Southern states and specifically Southwestern states were shut out of the new transportation system, so a new railroad, running from New Orleans to Southern California, was constructed to compensate. Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California all profited from the railroads construction, contributing to the development of major Southwestern cities like Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson and Los Angeles.  

Grand Central Terminal opened in New York City on Feb. 2, 1913. Located in Manhattan in New York City, it’s become a great tourist attraction for those visiting. When it was built, it solidified New York as the gateway to the U.S., allowing them to travel from Boston to California. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Feb. 2, 1913, 109 years ago, Grand Central Terminal opened in New York City. 

Washington D.C. may be the political capital of the U.S., but New York City is the undisputed cultural and economic capital of the country, and in no era was this more apparent than at the turn of the 20th century. The Big Apple was not always the Big Apple, and while it was a major American city before the Revolution, it was far from being one of the world’s most populous cities. 

By the Civil War, the entire city lay clumped on the southern tip of the island, with northern Manhattan consisting of farms and pastures rather than busy roadways. Railroads allowed for raw materials and goods to be transported from the rural South and Midwest to major cities in the Northeast, like New York, and around the world. Factories sprang up throughout the city as American farmers began buying New York-made clothes, shoes, pots, pans — you name it.  

Immigrants from around the world filled these factory jobs and rented out tenement apartments in the old half of the city, while “old money” (like the Astors and Roosevelts) and “new money” (like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers) moved uptown to build grand mansions alongside the newly constructed Central Park. Southern-born Black migrants, fleeing Jim Crow discrimination for New York jobs, settled even further uptown in the old Dutch quarter called Haarlem, which was renamed Harlem. 

Speaking of the Vanderbilts, railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt led the construction of Grand Central Terminal to solidify New York as the gateway to the U.S. New electric trains were brought in so steam trains’ smog could no longer pollute the inner-city. After 10 years and four billion dollars in today’s money later, the station was complete and New Yorkers could hop on a train bound for Boston, Chicago, D.C. or California with ease. 

The invention of the car and highway construction in the post-World War II era, however, saw the demise of the train in the mid-20th century. Grand Central Station fell into disrepair until influential cultural figures, like First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, spearheaded the historical preservation movement of the 1960s. In the 1980s, Grand Central underwent a massive restoration project, and has since become a historical landmark of the city, greeting tourists and suburban commuters on a daily basis.  

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