Jump to Navigation

Railroad Land Grants

The U.S. federal government has at times encouraged the development of roads, canals, and railroads when it was beneficial to the nation's expansion. When the U.S. government decided a transcontinental railroad was necessary, it stimulated private industry to build one.

Railroads, as private companies, needed to engage in profitable projects. So the federal government passed the Pacific Railroad Act that provided land grants to railroads. This provided public lands to railroad companies in exchange for building tracks in specific locations. The idea was that with railroad expansion in new territory, settlers would follow, establish communities, and increase the value of land. Railroads could sell their portions of land and profit from their investment. The federal government hoped the railroad profits would be reinvested for further expansion.

The U.S. government provided the survey of public lands and divided them into one-mile square sections. The government kept a portion of the sections. The railroads received alternate sections, in a kind of checkerboard pattern. The government lands could be offered for homesteading or sold for a profit. Supporters of the land grants program believed it would be successful for all parties.

Others were concerned about the relationship between the federal government and private companies. Most railroads provided service to specific regions, but they could profit from shipping goods to and from communities. Those who opposed the land grant program felt 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; mostly in the west. Railroad companies were given one-sixth of the land in Kansas.

Portions from The Kansas Journey.

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: March 2019

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