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About This Lesson Plan



American Journeys: California

The Rise of Railroads  NEW!

An Amtrak train speeds along.
An Amtrak train speeds along.



  • Students will use research techniques to investigate the role of railroads throughout American history
  • Students will write a research report explaining the connection between national U.S. events and advancements in transportation


  • The Rise of Railroads (PDF) Student Reproducible
  • pen/pencil
  • computer access
  • research materials
  • poster board
  • glue
  • colored markers


  1. The Rise of Railroads  NEW!


Background Discussion (20 minutes)

  1. Discuss the following U.S. history timelines with students. You may choose to write segments on the board or photocopy this section to share with students. Include additional events, if desired.

      1800-1859 Timeline

      1803: The Louisiana Purchase doubles the size of the United States
      1804: Louis and Clark explore the northwestern United States
      1825: The Erie Canal is finished, connecting New York City to the Great Lakes
      1846-1848: The U.S. War with Mexico expands U.S. territory into the southwest
      1848: Gold is discovered in California and 80,000 people head west

      1860-1900 Timeline

      1860: Abraham Lincoln is elected president
      1861-1865: The Civil War
      1890: Battle of Wounded Knee
      1898: Spanish-American War

      1901-1959 Timeline

      1903: The Wright Brothers fly for the first time
      1908: Model T Ford goes on sale for $850
      1914: The Panama Canal is completed
      1929: The stock market crash ushers in the Great Depression
      1941: U.S. enters World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor


      1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated
      1969: Neil Armstrong becomes the first person to walk on the moon
      1973: U.S. withdraws from Vietnam
      1991: Persian Gulf War
      2003: U.S.-led forces invade Iraq

  2. Briefly explain any unknown terms. Later students will conduct further research to fully understand each event.

  3. Discuss the purpose of a timeline (tool that allows one to quickly visualize the flow of events). Explain that the format of a timeline can make it easier to see connections between events. For example, this timeline shows that during the 1800s, United States territory expanded very quickly.

  4. Separate students into four groups. Assign each group one of the following time periods: 1800-1859, 1860-1900, 1901-1959, and 1960-present.

  5. Instruct each group to copy down the historical dates for their time period from the board. Explain that these national event timelines will be the starting point for a group project about the role of railroads in the United States.

Writing Action (1-2 weeks)

  1. Distribute The Rise of Railroads (PDF) Student Reproducible to each student. Explain that this worksheet is a research and pre-writing tool.

  2. Read the worksheet together. Review the following final project expectations:
    • TIMELINE should include:

      • Five (at least) events that were of national importance during your time period
      • Five (at least) events that describe the history of train transportation in the United States during your time period
      • Illustrations or photographs

    • REPORT should include:

      • Introduction that describes the time period
      • Descriptions of each event on the timeline
      • Conclusion that makes connections between railroad transportation and the larger historical events occurring at the time
      • Length: 1-2 pages

  3. Encourage students to first find out some general information about railway history during their assigned time period. Students may then begin researching people, places, and specific inventions (e.g., the first passenger train, the invention of the electric train, the building of the transcontinental railroad, etc.). The following are several Web sites that can help students get started:

  4. Provide one to two weeks for students to complete the research, report, and timeline for this project.

Active Wrap-up (40 minutes)

Display all the completed timelines on the wall. Ask each group to give a ten-minute presentation explaining what they learned about the history of railroads and how their findings link to larger historical events.

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