TRAINS: Iron Workhorses in the Age of Steam

/ / Unit Study

There is nothing new about using tracks made of stone, wood, or iron to move wheeled vehicles about— even since Babylonian times. Throughout history, man has had the need to find better ways to transport goods and people. Before the invention of the steam engine in the 1760s, travel was slow and the best way to get from place to place was by boat. The first locomotives were only experiments, and some folks thought they would never be powerful enough to be useful. A race was set up between a locomotive and a horse to see which was more powerful. The horse won the race, but only because the locomotive broke down. Those who saw the race realized how powerful the steam engine could be.

In America there were few roads. Even short journeys could take days. To reach faraway places, people had to cross wilderness areas with no bridges or mountain roads. The most effective overland means of travel was horses and wagons, but the uneven ground was uncomfortable and dangerous. Growing cities in the East increased the need to transport both goods and people easily.

The coming of the railroads changed travel and thus changed history. James Watt’s invention of the steam engine was just one of the mechanical marvels that aided industrial growth and provided a quicker, safer way to travel and to transport goods. The last quarter of the nineteenth century found America a nation moving along into the complexity of modern civilization. Railroads rushed to meet the challenge of a continent that needed to be knit together and contributed to the building of both the United States and Canada.

By the 1860s, a series of rail lines linked the growing East with a few railheads trailing out to Abilene, Texas, where cattle drovers brought cows to meet the demand of the eastern market for beef and leather. The California Gold Rush of 1849 created a mass of people “rushing”to the gold fields. Not only could a transcontinental railroad bring gold seekers west, but it could also bring California’s wealth back to the East. Railroad companies started planning to build a railway across the continent. In that day, wherever you looked you could see the combination of God’s bounty and man’s cleverness making America over into a nation of men who could not produce wealth fast enough.

The development of the steam locomotive would eventually meet the growing need for a faster, more efficient workhorse. Steam was the main form of power used to drive trains from the early 1800s, but it was not very efficient because trains had to stop often to take on more fuel and water. In most parts of the world, coal was the fuel used to heat the water to make the steam. In North America the main fuel was wood.


Quote: “Let the country make the railroads, and the railroads will make the country.” —Edward Pease (promoter of the Stockton & Darlington Railway)


  • Do a biographical sketch on James Watt. Place a picture of him in the center of a sheet; then write facts you learn (about him) in the space around the picture.
  • Make a “railroad”timeline showing inventions and key events.
  • List people who worked on trains: conductor, engineer, brakeman.
  • Learn about the different types of train cars and their purposes. Have students each choose a different car to draw (Provide students with a sheet that has a track drawn along the bottom of the page). Starting with the engine and ending with the caboose, tape the pictures together to form a long train to post on the wall


  • What president was in office when the transcontinental railroad was proposed to the government?
  • Find out about Theodore Judah (also known as Crazy Judah) and his involvement in the transcontinental railroad.
  • List problems and solutions of the railroads/trains.
  • Find out about the impact the railroads had on Native Americans and their response to this “Iron Horse.”
  • Research train disasters—such as fires and accidents.
  • Find out how the transcontinental railroad (completed in 1869) affected the “Westward Movement”of wagon trains.


  • List the “Big Four” who were in charge of building the transcontinental railroad.
  • Make a list of “Railroad Names” and list their accomplishments. (George and Robert Stephenson— The Rocket, England, 1825, first intercity steam locomotive running between Liverpool and Manchester, England. Richard Trevithick of Cornwall, England—1804, first steam railroad locomotive. Daniel Gooch—1852, British engineer who designed the most famous broad gauge locomotive, The Lord of the Isles.)
  • List the ethnic groups who worked on the railroads and write a paragraph with interesting facts about each. Make a picture gallery of workers. Obtain pictures from books, encyclopedias, and the Internet.
  • Learn about outlaws and great train robberies. Write a “Did You Know” paper telling interesting facts about famous outlaws.
  • List dangers associated with trains and working on the railroads.


  • Calculate distances between different points and railroad stations in the US and around the world.
  • Research horsepower—how the term originated and what it means.
  • Find out about the speed at which different types of trains throughout history have traveled.

Maps and Diagrams

  • Draw a diagram of a steam engine.
  • Use a blackline US map and drawthe route of the transcontinental railroad. Make a world map showing the water route around the tip of South America and the route through Panama. (Map resource:
  • Draw a diagram showing the “gauge” of railroad tracks.
  • Draw a diagram showing “wheel arrangements” and explain the meaning (example: 4-4-0).


  • Write a paper explaining how a steam engine works. Describe in detail (including pictures and diagrams) how a locomotive works and what kind of materials were used for fuel.


  • Prepare a notebook for all your work and create sections for your subjects. Be sure to include a section for famous trains, such as the Orient Express, Puffing Billy, and Big Boy. Include pictures and information about each.
  • Put together a train model (See Resources).


  • List railroad companies and draw your own picture of their crests and marker plates (Central Pacific, Union Pacific, and so on).
  • Obtain a “How to Draw Trains”book and draw your own train engine.


  • Sing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”and “Down by the Station.”
  • Recite “Engine, Engine, Number Nine.”

Field Trips

Visit a railroad museum (Sacramento, California) or visit a toy trains store or exhibit. See if you can arrange a field trip to a train station (Jamestown, California). Some areas offer train rides. (Felton, California—narrow gauge train ride through the Redwoods. Fort Bragg, California—the Skunk Train. Can you tell we live in California? Check out what’s available in your area.)

Arrange to take a day trip on an Amtrak train.

Drive to an area where you could see a train trestle or bridge to appreciate the engineering genius of its design.


  • Ten Mile Day: And the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad by Mary Ann Fraser
  • The Story of the Golden Spike by R. Conrad Stein (Cornerstones of Freedom series)
  • The Transcontinental Railroad by Peter Anderson (Cornerstones of Freedom series)
  • Full Steam Ahead: The Race to Build a Transcontinental Railroad by Rhoda Blumberg
  • Life in the West: The Railroad by Bobbie Kalman
  • All Aboard Trains by Mary Harding (a juvenile book but the best for descriptions of train cars)
  • Trains: A Stunning Visual History of Railroads by Julian Holland
  • Great Trains to Cut Out and Put Together by Carrie Taylor and Nick Taylor


  • The Orphan Train Adventures by Joan Lowery Nixon (several in the series)
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • The Boxcar Children #1 by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  • West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelina Viscardi (Dear America Diary)
  • Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express by Margaret K. Wetterer

Picture Storybooks

  • Train to Somewhere by Eve Bunting
  • Tchaikovsky Discovers America by Esther Kalman
  • John Henry: An American Legend by Ezra Jack Keats
  • The Divide by Michael Bedard
Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. - Proverbs 22:6