Transcontinental Railroad Lesson Plan

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Use this lesson plan to teach students about the history and impact of the Transcontinental Railroad. Explore the different railroad lines and learn about the hardships workers faced. Follow up with an activity to solidify learning.

Learning Objectives

After this lesson, students will be able to:

  • explain the impact of the Transcontinental Railroad on travel in America
  • compare and contrast travel before and after the Transcontinental Railroad
  • discuss the hardships faced by workers building the Transcontinental Railroad


45 minutes to 1 hour


  • Chart paper
  • Names of United States cities written on small pieces of paper (such as New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago, Omaha, Reno and Sacramento)
  • An in-class computer or tablet with Internet access

Curriculum Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7

Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.4

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.3

Identify key steps in a text's description of a process related to history/social studies (e.g., how a bill becomes law, how interest rates are raised or lowered).


  • Ask students to share experiences of travel (by car, train and plane). Together, discuss how it can be time-consuming getting from one place to another. Discuss how long travel would have taken before railroads even existed, and tell students they will be learning about the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Show our video lesson Transcontinental Railroad: Construction, History & Impact.
  • Grid it: As a fun note-taking technique, have students create a grid in their notebooks. You decide the parameters according to students' needs. (Typically a grid of 3x3 or 4x4 boxes is used.)
    • Ask students to fill in a minimum number of facts during the video lesson. After, they will visit with other students to fill in remaining squares with facts they didn't record.
  • After students have filled in their grids, discuss:
    • How did the Transcontinental Railroad impact travel across America in terms of time and money?
    • What were some positive and negative impacts of the Transcontinental Railroad?
    • Why did it take so long to complete the Union Pacific?
    • Why was the Union Pacific line important?
    • What were some hardships faced by railroad workers?
    • How were Chinese laborers treated differently than Irish? Why?
    • What message was sent to let others know the railroad was complete?


  • Students will compare and contrast travel before and after the railroad was built. Have students work in partner pairs, groups or individually, as your class needs dictate.
  • Have students randomly choose two cities. Students should take turns using the in-class computer or tablet to collect travel information using Google Maps (teacher should assist students as necessary).
    • Students should use the Directions feature to find and record the travel time by train (which will represent the travel time after the Transcontinental Railroad) as well as the number of miles direct between the two cities (use the walking option in Google Maps to display this information).
    • Next, students will use the number of miles to determine how long it would take to travel by stagecoach. Knowing that a stagecoach generally traveled 30-40 miles per day, depending on the terrain, have students calculate the number of days to travel between the two cities.
  • Ask students to create a representation of the data, such as a chart or a picture depicting the differences in travel time before and after the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Share work and discuss. Encourage students to support and evaluate one another.
  • Display work in classroom.


  • Sending the message 'Done' after the completion of a huge project is pretty boring and anti-climactic. Ask students to create a new message workers could send after finishing the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Have students create a scale model of the Transcontinental Railroad.
  • Ask students to imagine they are railroad workers. Write journals detailing experiences.

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