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William Thomas and Leslie Working
UNL history professor William Thomas and research project manager Leslie Working stand in front of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Steam Locomotive 710 at Lincoln Station on Thursday. Thomas received a grant to digitalize the history and impact of railroads on society in the U.S. history. (WILLIAM LAUER / Lincoln Journal Star)

Much like the Internet in recent decades, the railroad connected people from the far reaches of the United States, making the country a lot smaller.

Suffragists fighting for women's right to vote used it to travel from campaign stop to campaign stop, and communities sprang up along and near rail lines.

"Nebraska looks the way it does today because of the railroad," said Leslie Working, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student studying history.

Working is a member of a UNL research team using the Internet to better understand the railroad's impact on America.

Led by UNL history professor William Thomas, the team recently got a $100,000 boost for its efforts from a grant competition sponsored by four research agencies spread across the globe.

The funds will support UNL's "Railroads and the Making of Modern America" digital history project, a project Thomas started four years ago.

The project already has gathered millions of pages of digital data related to railroad history - like time schedules, newspaper accounts, payrolls and maps. Now the project will work to integrate that data into other data, such as census information.

By doing so, the project will provide scholars of American history a valuable source of future research material, Thomas said.

"It's not a matter of digitizing the content and putting it online, it's about how we can create new tools to see how these data are related," Thomas said. "This is about discovery."

The project is both a cross-disciplinary and an international effort. At UNL, researchers in computer science will help analyze the data and integrate it into other data.

Researchers from three universities in England and Canada also will work on the project.

The grant will allow the UNL team to hire graduate research assistants to aid in the 18-month project, which will begin in April. The team's funding will be matched in England, where researchers from the University of Portsmouth will receive 98,900 pounds (roughly $164,500).

The two research teams will combine their data.

Thomas said the UNL project will incorporate millions of pages of newsprint to understand the history of railroad workers, which he described as the fastest growing labor sector in the mid-19th Century.

"We want to study the lives and experiences of railroad workers," he said.

In Nebraska, the railroad was pivotal in determining settlement, Thomas said. Railroads received massive federal land grants and, in turn, sold much of that land to settlers.

He said his team received a land contract from a railroad in Nebraska to a settler who had been in the United States only three days.

"It's a fascinating story of this massive movement of people into this region," he said.

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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