Transcontinental Telegraph and Railroad, Grades K-5
Lessons, Activities & Resources Help Your Class Discover the Engineering Triumphs That Propelled Westward Expansion
Westward expansion during the 19th Century required speedier ways to communicate and transport people and goods between the East and West Coasts. Clipper ships and the Pony Express were a beginning. The Transcontinental Telegraph (1861) and Transcontinental Railroad (1869) provided faster overland service. The following lessons, activities, and resources will help put both engineering triumphs into perspective.
Railroads across the Country
Students in grades K-2 learn to read and trace transcontinental routes on a nineteenth-century railroad map of the United States.
Trade and Transportation in the United States
Students in grades K-2 look at maps of major U.S. transportation networks and will explain how specific products might get from one place to another.
Got the Message?
Students in grades 3-5 build their own electromagnetic telegraphs and send each other messages.
I Hear the Locomotives: The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad
Students in grades 3-5 make connections between the arrival of the railroads and many of the changes in the United States and its territories.
Additional Lesson Plans
Students in grades PreK-2 make button “trains,” sing train songs and create human “trains” as they explore cardinal and ordinal numbers and use vocabulary such as before, after and between.
All aboard the Train
Using this Smithsonian module, students in grades K-4 explore the history of trains in America.
Historic Maps in K-12 Classrooms - Map 11 - The Transcontinental Rail Network, 1878
Using a general map of U.S. railroads in 1878, students in grades K-12 examine the geographic, political, and economic factors that influenced the growth of this network.
Learn Morse Code
Promises to teach code in one minute. It may take longer, but the learning and practice tool is ingenious. The site also provides audio practice.
Morse Code Translator
Enter text and the translator produces Morse code which can then be played at different transmission speeds.
Telegraph (24 October 1861)
Features articles on the telegraph and images of telegraph equipment, particularly the development of the telegraph key.
The History of the Electric Telegraph and Telegraphy
Provides history of the Henry and the Cooke & Wheatstone electric telegraphs as well as Morse’s.
Downsizing, 1860s-Style: Lessons from the Pony Express
This article examines the impact of the transcontinental telegraph on the Pony Express and compares the resulting loss of jobs to contemporary downsizing.
- Wiring a Continent: The U.S. Transcontinental Telegraph Line
Includes a large map of the Pacific Telegraph route from Nebraska to California.
- The Pacific Telegraph Act (1860)
Includes a small blackline map of the Pacific Telegraph route.
Railroad (May 10, 1869):
First Transcontinental Railroad
This feature from the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum includes history, exhibits, and photographs, as well as a section on the Chinese immigrant contribution to the building of the western leg of the transcontinental railroad.
American Experience - Transcontinental Railroad | PBS
Companion website for film includes a teacher’s guide, articles, biographies, photo gallery, and a Flash interactive: The Race to Utah!
The West - Episode Five Introduction | PBS
Transcript of Transcontinental Railroad episode highlights impact on Native Americans, particularly the destruction of the buffalo herds.
The Historical Geography of Transportation Map 10 - Turnpikes, Canals and Railroads in the United States, 1835
A map published for travelers in the United States in 1835 lets K-12 students examine the nature and extent of transportation systems at the height of the canal era.
Golden Spike National Historic Site: For Kids
Two reenactment scripts (grades 4-6 and grades 7-9) for the Golden Spike ceremony.
The Historical Geography of Transportation Map 11 - The Transcontinental Rail Network, 1878
A general map of U.S. railroads in 1878 let K-12 students examine the geographic, political, and economic factors that influenced the growth of this network.
- Railroad Maps Collection
This map collection illustrates the growth of travel and settlement as well as the development of industry and agriculture in the United States.
- East and West: Completion of the Great Line Spanning the Continent
Text of New York Times article dated May 10, 1869.
- Map Showing the Route of the Continental Railway and Its Connecting Lines
The map can be zoomed and downloaded.
Pacific Railway Act: Primary Documents of American History
Maps of the United States
Historic and contemporary maps of the United States, including physical and political maps, early exploration and colonization period, territorial expansion maps, climate maps, relief maps, population density and distribution maps, vegetation maps, and economic/resource maps from 1820.
- Trains Printables
Wordsearch, vocabulary, crossword, quiz, and more. 10 resources.
- The America Expansion Coloring Pages
Three coloring pages for the Transcontinental Railroad.
- Building the Transcontinental Railroad
A brief history in printable format.
- A Timeline History of the Transcontinental Railroads in North America
- United States of America: 1860 ( PDF, 362 KB, 1 pg.)
- The United States, 1870
Map can be downloaded in color or B&W.
- Post Civil War United States, 1865–1892
Map can be downloaded in color or B&W.