Minnesota’s growth in the Territorial period had been phenomenal. After the Civil War, the percentage rate of growth slowed, but the people still poured in. Much of this was a direct result of the war. For many years, northerners had wanted a “homestead act” — an easy way for people to acquire public lands. The southern states had consistently opposed it since it would create more free territories (Randall/ Donald, p. 81). When they withdrew from the Union, the way was clear. The first Homestead Act passed in 1862.
That 1862 [legislative] session was significant for Minnesota in more than one way. The University of Minnesota had been chartered by the Territorial legislature, but very little had been done to actually found a school; the only functional college in Minnesota in the late 1850s was Hamline University, which was small and private. But just as the Federal government in 1862 set aside land for farmers, it also set aside land for agricultural colleges, and the land grants were instrumental in turning the University of Minnesota into a real school.
The Civil War era saw Minnesota become much more strongly linked with the rest of the nation. Until that time, the state had been difficult to reach. A state with a large land area and few people had a hard time producing a surplus for export. And, even if it had something to export, it would have been tricky to get it to market. The problem, in the years before 1860, was transport. Originally, Minnesota had been reached primarily by boat — but boat travel up the Mississippi was limited. The Upper Mississippi was often frozen by December. It did not re-open until around April. Even during the open season, there were enough rapids and shallows in the river to make it impossible for large boats to pass, and by August, the water level was too low to support anything large enough to carry real cargo. And Minnesota’s main exports, agricultural products, were at their best in late fall (for corn and other grain) or early winter (for animals fed on that grain), when shipping was not available. The only way Minnesota could reach its full potential was if the railroads arrived. But as late as 1859, there were no railroad bridges over the Mississippi north of Dubuque; the lines in Wisconsin terminated at La Crosse and Prairie du Chien (Nevins1852, pp. 220-221). Minnesota in 1860 was the only state in the Union with no railroad track at all (Randall/ Donald, p. 8, though it’s worth noting that Oregon had only three miles of track). It was a major event when the first train pulled into Saint Paul! Yet it took only about a decade from the day the first spike was driven in Minnesota for the railroads to cross the entire state and begin laying track in the Dakotas. Towns could be founded, grow large, and die within a decade as the train crews moved west. Even Duluth almost faded in that way; much smaller than Superior in the 1860s, it boomed when Jay Cooke brought the Northern Pacific railroad to town; the locals even dug a canal into the harbor in 1871. Cooke called the town the “Zenith City on the unsalted sea.” But the Panic of 1873 killed the Northern Pacific, and three-quarters of Duluth’s inhabitants left within a year (Gilman, pp. 135-138). It wasn’t until James J. Hill, the “Empire Builder,” took charge that Minnesota’s railroads were finally on a firm financial basis.
For many years, railroad work was dangerous. The early trains had no real brakes; they coasted into stations, and when they had to make a fast stop, brakemen had to try to manually slow each car. It was almost impossible to coordinate their activities, and they couldn’t stop the cars very quickly anyway. Also, trains missed schedules, and failed to be on the sidings at the right time, or passed switches which were not set correctly. In addition, American tracks were also built “on the cheap” — British rail firms typically spent some five times as much per mile of track laid (Nevins1862, p. 234). Tracks often shifted, increasing the odds of cars going off the rails. Train wreck songs in time became almost a part of the culture, as songs such as “The C. & O. Wreck” and “The Wreck of Old Number Nine” and, most famous of all, “The Wreck of Old 97” became immensely popular.
For all that, railroads were constantly growing, because they let people get places fast, and move more freight than had ever been possible before.
The problem of under-population also solved itself in this period, largely through immigration. The Germans and the Irish were among the first to arrive, fleeing poverty and, in many cases, political repression.
In the years after the Civil War, people from many other lands came to the United States. Scandinavian immigrants were found almost everywhere.
Later waves brought people from more exotic places — many Croats, for instance, settled on the Iron Range, and there is still a very large Finnish population there. Often the last wave of immigrants resented the next one — the Irish at the time of their arrival had been greeted by the cry “No Irish Need Apply”:
I have seen employment advertised,
“It’s just the thing,” says I,
“But the dirty spalpeen ended with
‘No Irish Need Apply.’”
But once the Irish were settled, they too feared the new waves of immigrants who came after them. It’s a story that has been repeated many times since.