October 29, 2022 | Last updated Jun 9, 2023

When Railroads Promoted Immigration

You might think that settlers or the state government were Nebraska’s biggest boosters in the 1870s, but you’d be wrong. They weren’t the ones running an international Nebraska promotion. It was two specific railroads.

Railroads used to be Nebraska’s biggest promoters. They even advertised overseas to encourage people to immigrate to Nebraska.

By the 1870s the Union Pacific and the Burlington were the state’s biggest railroads. The federal government gave them land grants to help finance construction. The railroads sold the land to settlers. Railroads were eager to sell not only to get the cash, but also to fill up the state with towns and farms that would provide a profitable carrying trade.

The railroads stationed immigration agents in the East and in northern and central Europe. They distributed millions of brochures describing Nebraska in glowing terms. They helped exhibit the state’s products at fairs and expositions and conducted special “land-seeking” excursions with the understanding that if the excursionist decided to purchase land, his fare could be applied to the payment.

The Beatrice Express on September 10, 1874, noted the Burlington’s ongoing efforts to attract settlers to Nebraska, saying that the railroad deserved “the sincerest gratitude of every citizen of Nebraska who has an interest in seeing the broad prairies of his state settled upon and improved and its taxable wealth increased.”

Not everyone was a fan of the railroads. Two years earlier the Union Pacific had been exposed in the Crédit Mobilier of America scandal, in which the UPRR was found to have bilked taxpayers out of millions of dollars and bribing public officials to cover it up. Farmers were also beginning to complain about railroad monopolies and rate fixing—the beginnings of what was to be a long political struggle.

But for all the growing controversies surrounding railroads, immigration itself was not a controversy in the 1870s. The Beatrice Express thought the Burlington Railroad deserved credit for promoting Nebraska overseas. “To be sure all this is done directly for their own interests, but in this day of sharp conflict between railroads and the people, this fact should not blind us to the truth of the statement that in this matter of immigration their interests are the people’s interests.”

There was no question of legality. The US regulated citizenship but had not yet begun restricting immigration. In Nebraska, the state Board of Immigration (established by the legislature in 1870) existed to bring settlers into the state. The Beatrice Express praised Burlington for “accomplishing infinitely more than the Immigration Board, without cost to the State.”

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