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Railroads and Mennonites have had an ambivalent relationship. For the older, isolated, and relatively prosperous Mennonite settlements in Europe and eastern North America the railroads were a troublesome intrusion which brought Mennonites into closer contact with the outside world and its many problems, but also with its lucrative markets for agricultural products. For others, the railroads opened up new frontiers which offered an escape to new and relatively isolated settlements.

The railroads, almost invariably coupled with protective trade tariffs, were seen by governments everywhere as one of the most effective means to enforce policies of economic nationalism. In Germany, after the unification of 1871, railroads were used by the government to reorient old trading patterns, forcing the newly confederated territories to trade through Berlin and the north German port cities. Danzig, along with Berlin, Hamburg, Koenigsberg, Bremen, Kiel, and their surrounding areas, all obtained rail facilities before unification, but these railways and the 1878 tariff facilitated their commercialization and industrialization. For the many Mennonites living in those centers this also marked the end of isolation.

In Russia wagon roads fairly close to the Chortitza and Molotschna regions were built to reinforce military supply lines from Moscow to the south after the Crimean War. Railroad development, however, was seriously delayed in all of the Ukraine, largely because of conflicting policies by state agencies and private railroad promoters. The Russian government, supported by influential Moscow and Petersburg merchants and industrialists, were determined to redirect northward much of the Ukrainian agricultural trade that had formerly made its way to international markets through southern Black Sea ports. Foreign capitalists, however, were more interested in building railroads northward and eastward from Odessa and other Black Sea ports.

Limited financial resources of the Russian state treasury and failures by private interests delayed construction of any Ukrainian railroads until 1869. In that year a line from Moscow to Kharkov and Taganrog was completed. This line ran a considerable distance from the Mennonite settlements, but six years later a new railway from Kharkov to Sevastopol in the Crimea provided the Chortitza and Molotschna colonies with rail service. Local branch lines in the 1890s brought the railroad right into Chortitza and Halbstadt. Access to northern markets was thus provided, and certainly helped the economy of the Mennonite colonies. But the policy of economic russification of the Ukraine was soon followed by other russification reforms that were not appreciated in the Mennonite colonies.

The Mennonites on the Atlantic seaboard of the United States first encountered the railroads in the 1840s and 1850s. The canals, particularly the Erie Canal (which established New York's dominance in the western trade), had taught businessmen in all the eastern cities the importance of competitive transportation links to the "West" (Midwest). The advent of the railroad age led to intense intercity rivalry for the traffic of the interior. This was matched by a keen awareness on the part of traders and speculators in the interior that, without rail connections, their particular towns would be quickly overtaken by others with such connections. Thus big city promoters and hinterland boosters and speculators urged westward railroad extensions.

The Mennonites in Pennsylvania and Virginia regarded all this frantic boosterism with understandable skepticism. There was certainly much to encourage them to support the railroads and to buy railroad bonds and stocks. But this involved a yoking of believers with unbelievers in decidedly dubious and often scandalous ventures. Since many of the eastern Mennonite settlements were relatively close to large market centers, especially Philadelphia, they tended to see the railroads as a convenience rather than as an absolute economic necessity. Some quickly realized that the railroads would not only provide an economic service. They also brought the outside world very much closer.

Further west, in the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri valleys, the railroads were urgently needed if pioneer farmers were to be able to transport their produce to market. There was consequently stronger initial support among the Mennonites in those states, and correspondingly greater disillusionment when the railroads failed to provide all the services promised at reasonable rates.

The entire railroad network in the northern states underwent major changes during the Civil War. The former east-west orientation of the railroads was forcibly altered as military leaders sought to establish reliable military supply lines from northern manufacturing and trading centers to the battlefronts farther south, including a new line down the Shenandoah Valley. This brought the railroads much closer to many of the Mennonite settlements and facilitated increased trade after the conflict. During the Civil War some Mennonite men who refused active military service were compelled to do railroad construction work.

Mennonites in Ontario in the 1850s and 1860s largely shared the attitudes of their American coreligionists. Geographically the Niagara and Waterloo settlements were closer to the Ohio Valley than the Atlantic seaboard, but transportation patterns in Canada were different than in the United States. The best and cheapest natural transportation route on the continent was the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River water navigation system. This route was still open to Canadian farmers, but was closed after the Civil War to their American neighbors by high American tariffs which were designed to force traffic from the interior through American cities on the Atlantic seaboard. In addition, the financing of the early Canadian railroads came mostly from England.

After 1870 Mennonites had new and different experiences with the railroads, particularly with those railroads that opened up important new agricultural frontiers. Disgruntled Russian Mennonites seeking new and remote settlement opportunities found North American land-grant railroads very eager to do business with them. These railroads had been given large tracts of land to subsidize construction costs. But those lands were of very little value to the railroads unless they could be sold to bona fide settlers who would generate traffic for the railroads. In the United States the Mennonites entered into negotiations with at least half a dozen western land grant railroads, but ultimately gave most of their business in Kansas to the Atcheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, and in Nebraska to the Burlington and Missouri Railroad and the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad. The railroads sold their lands on generous credit terms, extended transportation credits to prospective settlers, and provided other necessary assistance for those immigrants who actually occupied the land. The settlers generated desperately needed rail traffic, and gave assurances that the entire indebtedness would eventually be repaid.

In Canada there was, in 1873, only the promise of a future railroad when the Russian Mennonites approached the Canadian government for a land grant and other concessions (privileges) in Manitoba. The Mennonites received their land from the government, which was at that time busily at work on a government railroad project. The first Mennonite settlers that came to Manitoba, however, had to take American railroads to Minnesota and then move by riverboat to Manitoba. The government did complete a railroad from Winnipeg to Pembina on the American border in 1878, thus providing Manitobans with their first rail service.

First train into Haskett, Manitoba. Canadian Mennonite photo

In 1881 the Canadian government signed a contract with a private syndicate to build a proposed transcontinental Canadian railroad. The new Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), like many western American railroads, was given a huge western land grant. Canadian Pacific officials quickly realized that the Mennonites were excellent settlers and thus were eager to attract new Mennonite immigrants to its lands, or to facilitate the relocation of any who expressed a desire to leave the original Manitoba reserves and settle farther west on company lands.

The CPR proved a particular benefactor in the 1920s when thousands of Russian Mennonites desperately sought to escape Soviet Russia. The CPR and Canadian National Railways exerted decisive influence on the government to have restrictions against Mennonite immigration removed, and then offered the Mennonite immigrants credit, transportation, land, and advice, much of it on unusually easy terms. The Mennonites had longer and closer links with the CPR and chose to deal mainly, though not exclusively, with that company. Without the assistance of the CPR the 22,000 Mennonites who came to Canada from the Soviet Union in the 1920s would not have been able to emigrate.

Russia also had an agricultural frontier, but east and north of the established Mennonite colonies. Construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, begun in 1891 and completed in 1906, opened up vast new tracts of virgin lands at a time when severe overcrowding threatened the older colonies. The Mennonites established a number of daughter colonies near that railroad. Most of these were established after 1907, and had not yet surmounted early pioneering difficulties when World War I and the ensuing Russian Revolution and Civil War engulfed them.

Railroads in Latin America were usually somewhat more remote from the Mennonite colonies. Many of those who decided to migrate from Canada to Mexico, Paraguay, Brazil, Belize, Honduras, and other Latin American countries did so to reestablish a separation and isolation that had been disrupted. The railroads had been one of the principal instruments of such disruptions. Mennonites arriving later in Latin America did not necessarily share the original colonists' insistence on isolation, but by that time roads provided an alternative and superior means of transport by truck.

The railroads were, for approximately 100 years, the most important link between isolated Mennonite agricultural communities and the metropolitan centers which provided the markets for their agricultural produce and the source of materials and supplies that could not be produced in the Mennonite settlements. Paradoxically, the railroads destroyed the isolation of many Mennonite settlements, facilitating economic integration into larger national and international trading systems, at the same time that they took many Mennonites to new and relatively isolated areas.


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Author(s) Ted D Regehr
Date Published 1990

Cite This Article

MLA style

Regehr, Ted D. "Railroads." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 3 Jul 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Railroads&oldid=143436.

APA style

Regehr, Ted D. (1990). Railroads. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 3 July 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Railroads&oldid=143436.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 742-744. All rights reserved.

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