Transcontinental Railroad and the American Bison Crisis
Buffalo were slow-grazing, four-legged bank rolls. And for a while, there were plenty. Then in 1873 an economic depression hit the country, and what easier way was there to make money than to chase down these ungainly beasts? Thousands of buffalo runners came, sometimes averaging 50 bison a day. They sliced their humps, skinned off the hides, tore out their tongues, and left the rest on the prairies to rot. They slaughtered so many buffalo that it flooded the market and the price dropped, which meant they had to hunt more.
Rail connections to the Great Plains proved especially devastating. After acquiring horses, Indians there had become heavily dependent on the plains bison for food, shelter, clothing, trade, and much more. In 1872 it was found that bison hides could be processed into commercial leather, and white hide-hunters immediately set out to meet that demand. Within a decade they had driven the millions of animals to the verge of extinction. The slaughter would have been unlikely, probably impossible, had railroads not provided the means to ship the hides and bones off to eastern factories. In one year near the end of the carnage, 1881-1882, the Northern Pacific shipped 2,250 tons of hides from the northern plains. Once the herds were gone, plains Indians had no true option but to turn to reservations and dependence on federal support. In effect the life blood of a people had bled away through the rail lines.