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Transcontinental Telegraph and Railroad, Grades K-5

Lessons, Activities & Resources Help Your Class Discover the Engineering Triumphs That Propelled Westward Expansion

Found in: Language Arts & Literature, Science, Social Studies, Grades PreK-2, 3-5

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.

Lesson Plans & Activities

Lesson Plans

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.

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

Button Trains
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.

Background Resources

Telegraph  (24 October 1861)

Telegraph History
Features articles on the telegraph and images of telegraph equipment, particularly the development of the telegraph key.

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.

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.


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.



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