Who Built the Railroads?: A Need Arises for a Trans-Siberian Railway
This series that I have entitled “Who Built the Railroads?” focuses on the workers, many of whom were immigrant laborers, who built the transcontinental railroad in the United States and the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia. Part 1 was an introduction to the immigrant laborers who comprised the majority of the labor force.
Part 2, A Need Arises for a Trans-Siberian Railway
The moniker “Trans-Siberian Railway” is a foreign term that has been applied to the railway, as there is no organizational unit controlling it. The railway is divided among more than a half-dozen administrative units. The Trans-Siberian Railway spans Russia, commencing from the west at St. Petersburg to the east at Vladivostok, a city that lies near Russia’s borders with China and Korea. The railroad was originally intended to pass through Manchuria, but now runs parallel to the Russian-Chinese border; planners chose this alternate route because, as the southern-most route, it was more densely populated, and demographic surveys showed migratory patterns in that direction.
Railroad building provided an economic explosion after mid-nineteenth century in Europe. “The arrival of steam-powered industry and transportation in the third quarter of the century transformed European expansiveness into a mass movement.” Between 1861 and 1882, Russians laid 14,300 miles of track. Unlike America where four transcontinental railroads had already been completed by 1890 and Europe whose railways were primarily in place by the same year, Russia was only beginning her largest work by 1890. Russia laid 32,000 miles of track from 1882 to 1914. The Trans-Siberian railway was in construction from 1891 to 1905, though a further installment was completed ten years later. Initially, Russian railroads were funded and built through private enterprises, but by the time the Trans-Siberian railway was under construction, the government had subsidized the business. The Russian government funded the Trans-Siberian with loans, both foreign and domestic.
Construction on each of the separate administrative units commenced largely concurrently. As of 1895, planners expected that the railway, upon completion, be 4700 miles in length. Petr Kropotkin described very specifically in 1895 that workers had “already laid over 1006 miles – that is 68 miles more than one-fifth part of the whole distance.” From that point, the units were completed primarily in order from west to east; the West Siberian Road was completed in 1896, and the Issuri road in 1897. Work began on the Central Siberian sector in 1893 and was finalized in 1899. Workers finished the Irkutsk-Lake Baikal line in 1901, and the Chinese Eastern Rail, which was to allow traffic from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific, was completed in 1903.
Completion of the railroad is attributed in large part to the determination of one man, Sergei Witte. Witte worked his way up from a lowly laborer to a minister in the Russian government. Witte controlled the Committee of the Siberian Railroad and in the 1890s, appointed Nicholas II as the committee’s chairman. As the then-heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas could insure the railway would be completed. Such assurances were necessary for Witte to garner because of doubt that had accrued because of the continual delays of the previous decade.
The urgency for such a railroad became apparent with Russia’s loss of the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. Great Britain and France exercised their industrial superiority by providing the Turks the necessary support to fend off the Russian aggressors, who were attempting to extend their empire west into the region. Thus the Trans-Siberian railroad was being built primarily for defensive purposes, though the expansion of Russian markets and commerce was also on the government’s agenda. F.W. Williams noted in 1899: “Until her trans-Siberian railroad is completed and the provinces beyond Baikal become in some degree self-supporting, Russia is in no condition to meet a first class power on the Pacific.” This statement proved prophetic with the results of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. Japan was hardly considered a first class power as it had only been industrializing since approximately 1868 under the Meiji Restoration.
The war began as a result of Russia encroaching on Japanese territory on mainland Asia; in response Japan attacked Russia. Japan quickly defeated Russia’s navy and invaded Russia herself. Though the Trans-Siberian was largely completed by the time the Russo-Japan commenced, many problems persisted, and repairs had yet to be accomplished. Even still, the railway was Russia’s main supply route for its armies during the Russo-Japan War. Realizing that a dominant victory would gravely upset the power balance in Asia, United States President Theodore Roosevelt intervened in an effort to end the war. As a result of the war, Japan maintained its hold on Taiwan and Korea and gained the formerly Russian-controlled Port Arthur, though Japan was somewhat disappointed that it had not gained more. The Japanese victory renewed the Russian dedication to the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Part 2: A Need Arises for a Trans-Siberian Railway
This article first appeared in the Vulcan Historical Review (2010) under the title: “Transcontinental: A Comparison of Labor Sources Used in the Construction of the First Transcontinental Railroads in the United States and Russia”.
 P. Kropotkin, “The Great Siberian Railway,” The Geographical Journal 5 (February 1895), 148; Ames, 65, 71.
 Walter Nugent, “Frontiers and Empires in the Late Nineteenth Century,” The Western Historical Quarterly 20 (November 1989), 393-394.
 Michael Mirski, “The Soviet Railway System: Policy and Operation,” Russian Review 13 (January 1954), 21; Nugent, 395.
 Kropotkin, 148.
 Mirski, 18; Ames, 72.
 F.W. Williams, “The Russian Advance in Asia,” The Yale Law Journal 8 (April 1899), 311-312; Ames, 65.
 Steven Marks, Road to Power: The Trans-Siberian Railroad and the Colonization of Asian Russia (1850-1917) (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), 135; Valentine Tschebotarioff Bill, “The Early Days of Russian Railroads,” Russian Review 15 (January 1956), 14.
Photo by me.