Why Did Railroads Try To Stop Farmers From Organizing?

Farmers in the late 1800s faced unfair business practices from railroad companies, who charged excessive shipping rates. In response, farmers began organizing into groups like the Grange to fight against railroad monopolies.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Railroads tried to stop farmers from organizing because farmer cooperatives threatened railroad profits and control over shipping rates.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the rise of railroad monopolies, the origins of the Grange and other farmer groups, the specific unfair tactics used by railroads, and the eventually legislation like the Interstate Commerce Act that began regulating railroad business practices.

The Rise of Railroad Monopolies

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroad industry experienced rapid growth and expansion in the United States. As railroads became the primary mode of transportation for goods and people, they wielded significant economic power and influence.

This rise in power led to the formation of railroad monopolies, which had far-reaching implications for various sectors of the economy, including the agricultural industry.

Early Railroad Growth and Consolidation

In the early years of the railroad industry, numerous small railroad companies operated independently, laying tracks and connecting different regions. However, as the industry grew, many of these smaller companies faced financial difficulties and were forced to merge or be acquired by larger, more financially stable companies.

This led to the consolidation of railroads, with a few large companies emerging as dominant players in the industry.

One notable example of this consolidation was the creation of the “Big Four” railroad companies in the Midwest during the late 19th century. These companies, including the New York Central, Pennsylvania, Baltimore and Ohio, and Erie railroads, controlled vast networks of tracks and had significant influence over transportation routes and pricing.

Railroads Form Regional Monopolies

As the railroads grew and consolidated their power, they began to form regional monopolies. These monopolies allowed the railroad companies to dictate transportation rates and exert control over access to their networks.

Farmers, who heavily relied on the railroads to transport their goods to market, became increasingly dependent on these monopolistic railroads.

For example, in the Midwest, the “Big Four” railroads effectively controlled the transportation of agricultural products, such as grain and livestock, to the eastern markets. These railroads had the power to set high rates for shipping, which often resulted in significant financial burdens for farmers.

Additionally, the monopolistic railroads could prioritize the transportation of goods from larger, more profitable shippers, leaving smaller farmers at a disadvantage.

Railroads Discriminate Against Farmers

One of the main reasons why railroads tried to prevent farmers from organizing was to maintain their control over transportation and pricing. When farmers organized into cooperatives or associations, they were able to negotiate better rates and conditions for shipping their goods.

This threatened the railroad monopolies’ ability to maximize profits and maintain their dominance in the industry.

Railroads responded to farmers’ attempts to organize by engaging in discriminatory practices. They would charge higher rates for shipping agricultural products compared to other commodities, impose arbitrary fees, or even refuse to transport certain goods altogether.

These discriminatory practices put additional financial strain on farmers and hindered their ability to compete in the market.

Farmers Begin Organizing

The late 19th century saw a significant shift in the agricultural landscape of the United States. As farmers faced numerous challenges, including falling crop prices and mounting debt, they recognized the need to come together and advocate for their rights.

This led to the emergence of various farmer organizations, starting with the influential Grange Movement.

The Grange Movement Begins

The Grange Movement, also known as the Patrons of Husbandry, was founded in 1867 by Oliver Kelley. It aimed to improve the lives of farmers through education, social gatherings, and political activism.

The Grange quickly gained popularity among farmers, with thousands of local chapters established across the country. Through collective action, they sought to address issues such as unfair railroad practices, high interest rates, and the monopolistic power of middlemen.

The Grange organized lectures, cooperative buying and selling programs, and even established their own stores and grain elevators. By pooling their resources and knowledge, farmers were able to gain some leverage in an increasingly industrialized and commercialized society.

Other Farmer Organizations Emerge

While the Grange Movement was the most prominent farmer organization of its time, other groups also emerged to address specific concerns. For example, the Farmers’ Alliance, founded in the 1870s, focused on economic issues such as crop prices, credit availability, and government regulation.

The Alliance advocated for the establishment of cooperatives and the regulation of railroads to ensure fair transportation rates.

Another notable organization was the National Farmers’ Union, founded in 1902. It sought to address the challenges faced by farmers in the increasingly consolidated and industrialized agricultural sector.

The Union aimed to improve farm income, promote fair trade practices, and ensure access to affordable credit and insurance.

Railroads Feel Threatened

As farmers organized and began to challenge the status quo, they posed a significant threat to the interests of railroad companies. Railroads played a crucial role in transporting agricultural products to markets, but their practices often favored larger, more established farmers and middlemen.

The emergence of farmer organizations meant that farmers now had a platform to voice their grievances and demand fair treatment.

The railroads, fearing the loss of their privileged position, actively worked to undermine the farmer organizations. They used various tactics, such as discriminatory freight rates and preferential treatment for larger farmers, to weaken the collective bargaining power of smaller farmers.

Additionally, they lobbied against legislation that sought to regulate their practices or provide relief to struggling farmers.

It is important to note that not all railroads were opposed to the farmers’ cause. Some smaller regional railroads recognized the value of maintaining good relations with farmers and even offered preferential rates to cooperative organizations.

However, the larger railroad companies, concerned about potential loss of profits, viewed the farmers’ organizing efforts as a threat to their bottom line.

Unfair Tactics Used Against Farmers

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, railroads played a vital role in transporting agricultural goods across the United States. However, instead of being a fair and neutral means of transportation, railroads often employed unfair tactics to exploit farmers.

These unfair tactics were aimed at stifling the farmers’ ability to organize and advocate for better conditions. Here are some of the tactics that railroads used against farmers:

Price Discrimination

One of the unfair tactics used by railroads was price discrimination. Railroads would charge different rates for shipping agricultural products based on the farmer’s location or the size of their operation.

This meant that larger, more established farms would receive preferential treatment and lower shipping rates, while smaller and less influential farmers would be charged higher prices. This discriminatory pricing structure made it difficult for farmers to compete on a level playing field and hindered their ability to organize collectively.

Rebates and Kickbacks

Railroads also employed rebates and kickbacks as a way to control farmers and discourage them from organizing. They would offer secret discounts or refunds to certain farmers who shipped their products exclusively with the railroad company.

This created a system of favoritism, where only a select group of farmers would benefit from these cost savings. By excluding farmers who were part of farmer organizations or cooperatives, railroads effectively undermined the farmers’ collective bargaining power.

Predatory Pricing

Another unfair tactic used by railroads was predatory pricing. Railroads would intentionally lower their shipping rates to a level below their actual costs in order to drive competitors out of business.

This predatory pricing strategy was aimed at eliminating competition and monopolizing transportation services. By effectively crushing smaller, independent farmers who couldn’t afford to match these artificially low rates, railroads maintained their dominance and hindered the farmers’ ability to organize against them.

These unfair tactics used by railroads were a direct response to the growing organization and collective action of farmers. By exploiting their economic power, railroads aimed to suppress any attempts by farmers to demand fair treatment and better conditions.

Despite the challenges they faced, farmers persevered and eventually succeeded in their efforts to combat these unfair practices, leading to the establishment of legislation to regulate railroad behavior and protect the rights of farmers.

Regulating the Railroads

The rise of the railroad industry in the late 19th century brought about significant changes in the American economy. Railroads played a crucial role in transporting goods, connecting different regions, and stimulating economic growth.

However, their immense power and influence also led to concerns regarding unfair practices, particularly when it came to the transportation of agricultural products. As a result, efforts were made to regulate the railroads and prevent them from exploiting farmers.

State Railroad Regulations

Before the implementation of federal regulations, several states took the initiative to regulate their own railroads. These state-level regulations aimed to address issues such as discriminatory pricing, rate manipulation, and the monopolistic control of railroads.

Some states, like Illinois and Wisconsin, enacted laws that prohibited railroads from charging excessive rates or engaging in discriminatory practices against farmers. These regulations provided some relief to farmers, but they were limited in scope and effectiveness due to the interstate nature of the railroad industry.

The Interstate Commerce Act

In response to the limitations of state-level regulations, the federal government took action by passing the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. This landmark legislation marked the first attempt to regulate the railroad industry on a national level.

The Interstate Commerce Act established the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), which was tasked with overseeing railroad practices and ensuring fair treatment for all parties involved.

Under the Interstate Commerce Act, railroads were required to provide reasonable and just rates, refrain from discriminatory practices, and operate in a transparent manner. The ICC had the authority to investigate complaints, issue fines, and enforce regulations.

While the act did not completely eliminate the issues faced by farmers, it provided them with a platform to voice their grievances and seek redress.

Lasting Impacts on the Railroad Industry

The implementation of state and federal regulations had a profound impact on the railroad industry. It marked a shift from unregulated laissez-faire practices to a more structured and accountable system.

The regulations forced railroads to be more transparent in their operations and adopt fair pricing practices.

However, it is worth noting that the regulations also had unintended consequences. Some argue that the regulations stifled innovation and hindered the growth of the railroad industry. Nonetheless, the regulations played a crucial role in addressing the concerns of farmers and ensuring that they were not taken advantage of by the powerful railroad companies.


As we explored, railroads tried aggressively to undermine early farmer cooperatives because they threatened railroad profits and control. By banding together, farmers gained political power to curb the unfair monopolistic practices railroads had gotten away with in the past.

While railroads were eventually regulated, this early conflict shows how vital civic participation through organizations was for farmers and other groups without strong political lobbies to counter more powerful business interests at the time.

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