In the decades after the Civil War, the United States witnessed what historian Maury Klein dubbed an "orgy of railroad construction." During the 1880s, 71,000 miles of rail were constructed - nearly doubling the total. As financiers knit together vast, redundant national networks, they slashed rates furiously, built gigantic stations, engaged in Enron-style accounting tricks, and tried (unsuccessfully) to divide up the market.
The boom ended with a bust in 1894, when about one quarter of all railroads were bankrupt. But the rails didn't get torn up. Instead, with freight prices falling drastically, the railroad emerged as a powerful commercial infrastructure for new businesses. Mail-order retailers like Montgomery Ward and Sears, consumer products companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, rapidly built highly efficient national enterprises and brands on the railroad.