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The Impact of Access to Rail Transportation on Agricultural Improvement: The American Midwest as a Test Case, 1850-1860


  • Robert A. Margo

    () (Department of Economics, Boston University.)

  • Jeremy Atack

    () (Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University and NBER)


During the 1850s, land in U.S. farms increased by more than a third—100 million acres—and almost 50 million acres, an area almost equal to that of the states of Indiana and Ohio combined, were converted from their raw, natural state into productive farmland. The time and expense of transforming this land into a productive agricultural resource represented a significant fraction of domestic capital formation at the time and was an important contributor to American economic growth. Even more impressive, however, was the fact that almost half of these total net additions to cropland occurred in just seven Midwestern states which comprised somewhat less than one-eighth of the land area of the country at that time. Using a new GISbased transportation database linked to county-level census data, we estimate that at least a quarter (and possibly two-thirds or more) of this increase in cultivable land can be linked directly to the coming of the railroad to the Midwest. Farmers responded to the shrinking transportation wedge which raised agricultural revenue productivity by rapidly expanding the area under cultivation and these changes, in turn, drove rising farm and land values.

Suggested Citation

  • Robert A. Margo & Jeremy Atack, 2010. "The Impact of Access to Rail Transportation on Agricultural Improvement: The American Midwest as a Test Case, 1850-1860," Boston University - Department of Economics - Working Papers Series WP2010-026, Boston University - Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:bos:wpaper:wp2010-026

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Card, David & Krueger, Alan B, 1994. "Minimum Wages and Employment: A Case Study of the Fast-Food Industry in New Jersey and Pennsylvania," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 84(4), pages 772-793, September.
    2. Lebergott, Stanley, 1985. "The Demand for Land: The United States, 1820–1860," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 45(02), pages 181-212, June.
    3. Jeremy Atack & Fred Bateman & Michael Haines & Robert A. Margo, 2009. "Did Railroads Induce or Follow Economic Growth? Urbanization and Population Growth in the American Midwest, 1850-60," NBER Working Papers 14640, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Feng Xie & David Levinson, 2010. "How streetcars shaped suburbanization: a Granger causality analysis of land use and transit in the Twin Cities," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 10(3), pages 453-470, May.
    5. Joshua D. Angrist & Jörn-Steffen Pischke, 2009. "Mostly Harmless Econometrics: An Empiricist's Companion," Economics Books, Princeton University Press, edition 1, number 8769.
    6. Primack, Martin L., 1962. "Land Clearing Under Nineteenth-Century Techniques: Some Preliminary Calculations," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 22(04), pages 484-497, December.
    7. David Levinson, 2008. "Density and dispersion: the co-development of land use and rail in London," Journal of Economic Geography, Oxford University Press, vol. 8(1), pages 55-77, January.
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    Cited by:

    1. 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.
    2. repec:jed:journl:v:42:y:2017:i:3:p:1-16 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Hanedar, Avni Önder, 2013. "Transportation Infrastructure and Economic Growth in a Dissolving Country: (Ir)relevance of Railroads in the Ottoman Empire," MPRA Paper 77974, University Library of Munich, Germany, revised 10 Apr 2017.
    4. Rui Manuel Pereira, Alfredo Marvao Pereira and William J. Hausman, 2017. "Railroad Infrastructure Investments and Economic Development in the Antebellum United States," Journal of Economic Development, Chung-Ang Unviersity, Department of Economics, vol. 42(3), pages 1-16, September.
    5. Berger, Thor & Enflo, Kerstin, 2017. "Locomotives of local growth: The short- and long-term impact of railroads in Sweden," Journal of Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 98(C), pages 124-138.
    6. Jeremy Atack & Matthew S. Jaremski & Peter L. Rousseau, 2014. "Did Railroads Make Antebellum U.S. Banks More Sound?," NBER Chapters,in: Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective, pages 149-178 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    7. Claudia N. Berg & Uwe Deichmann & Yishen Liu & Harris Selod, 2017. "Transport Policies and Development," Journal of Development Studies, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 53(4), pages 465-480, April.
    8. William J. Collins & Robert A. Margo, 2014. "Introduction to "Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective"," NBER Chapters,in: Enterprising America: Businesses, Banks, and Credit Markets in Historical Perspective, pages 1-22 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • R40 - Urban, Rural, Regional, Real Estate, and Transportation Economics - - Transportation Economics - - - General


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    1. Historical Economic Geography


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