The early years of railroad growth saw railroads built between fledgling towns and across wilderness to transport people and goods. In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad across the U.S. was completed, and in the next 50 years trains crisscrossed the country on newly built tracks.

The railways’ speed of travel and volume of traffic far exceeded horse-drawn carts, canal traffic and the earliest motor vehicles. Between 1869 and 1916 several kinds of rail networks were built: The longest ones connected far-flung parts of the country; regional ones knitted together populated cities. The first urban railway—the subway or metro—was built in 1863 in London. These and tramways brought people, commuting on a daily basis, within cities to different areas of the city for their jobs and schools.

View a slideshow of different transportation innovations

The height of the rail network in the United States peaked in about 1916, with 254,000 miles of railway track covering the country.

Our snapshot of various aspects of railways from 1915 shows some diverse parts of this varied, far-flung, network of networks in the U.S. and abroad. For a fuller account, you should take a look at the Archive of the magazine that covered the technology, growth and decline of the railroad: