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“Uncle Sam’s ‘Wild West’ (East and South) Show”, cartoon by William A. Rogers, Harper’s Weekly, April 9, 1887

By the late nineteenth century, railroads were the principal means of interstate transport of agricultural and industrial products, and railroad companies charged exorbitant rates to maximize profits. In 1887 Congress created the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), giving it authority to investigate—but not regulate—railroad prices. A cartoonist pictured the railroads as wild beasts beyond control of the ICC.

Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

“Uncle Sam’s ‘Wild West’ (East and South) Show”, cartoon by William A. Rogers, Harper’s Weekly, April 9, 1887

Regulating the Railroads

The Hepburn Railway Regulation Act of 1906 was a major legislative achievement of the Progressive Era. With this act, Congress strengthened the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), expanding its authority and empowering it to set railroad rates, institute standardized accounting practices, and require rail companies to file annual reports. These new regulations helped curb abuses that had made the railroads one of the nation’s most powerful industries. Introduced in the House and opposed in the Senate, the legislation passed only after extensive negotiation between the chambers.

[This legislation] will aid toward minifying a number of wrongs; it will give greater contentment to all the people in the belief that they are not being made the puppet and the football of [railroad] carriers.

Representative William P. Hepburn of Iowa, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, February 7, 1906