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Railroads and American Economic Growth: A "Market Access" Approach

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  • Dave Donaldson
  • Richard Hornbeck

Abstract

This article examines the historical impact of railroads on the U.S. economy, with a focus on quantifying the aggregate impact on the agricultural sector in 1890. Expansion of the railroad network may have affected all counties directly or indirectly—an econometric challenge that arises in many empirical settings. However, the total impact on each county is captured by changes in that county’s "market access," a reduced-form expression derived from general equilibrium trade theory. We measure counties’ market access by constructing a network database of railroads and waterways and calculating lowest-cost county-to-county freight routes. We estimate that county agricultural land values increased substantially with increases in county market access, as the railroad network expanded from 1870 to 1890. Removing all railroads in 1890 is estimated to decrease the total value of U.S. agricultural land by 60%, with limited potential for mitigating these losses through feasible extensions to the canal network or improvements to country roads. JEL Codes: N01, N51, N71, F1, O1, R1.

Suggested Citation

  • Dave Donaldson & Richard Hornbeck, 2016. "Railroads and American Economic Growth: A "Market Access" Approach," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 131(2), pages 799-858.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:qjecon:v:131:y:2016:i:2:p:799-858.
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    File URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10.1093/qje/qjw002
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    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • F1 - International Economics - - Trade
    • N01 - Economic History - - General - - - Development of the Discipline: Historiographical; Sources and Methods
    • N51 - Economic History - - Agriculture, Natural Resources, Environment and Extractive Industries - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • N71 - Economic History - - Economic History: Transport, International and Domestic Trade, Energy, and Other Services - - - U.S.; Canada: Pre-1913
    • O1 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development
    • R1 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - General Regional Economics

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