150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad is May 10


One of the key events in the history of the United States occurred 150 years ago (May 10) – the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (which was also known as “The Pacific Railway” and the “Overland Route”). North of the Great Salt Lake, at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869, the ceremonial last spikes were driven and the railroad was completed.

photo courtesy of sps700.org

On June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco via the First Transcontinental Railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left New York City. Ten years earlier, the same journey would have taken months over land or weeks on ship, possibly all the way around South America.

The Linda Hall Library explains that before the transcontinental railroad was completed, “a journey across the continent to the western states meant a dangerous six-month trek over rivers, deserts and mountains. Alternatively, a traveler had the option to hazard a six-week sea voyage around Cape Horn, or sail to Central America and cross the Isthmus of Panama by rail, risking exposure to any number of deadly diseases in the crossing.”

The rise of railroads

The steam locomotive was invented in the United Kingdom in 1812-13, and the world’s first railroads were built there (with the first steam locomotive pulling passengers in 1825). In the United States, the first steam locomotive came on the scene in 1830. The nation’s first railroads were built in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and trains began to run with increasing frequency during the 1830s. As the 1840s came to a close, railroads had extended their reach throughout the East, South and Midwest. By 1850, approximately 9,000 miles of railroad track had been laid east of the Missouri River (which at that time was the “boundary” between the civilized part of the United States and the “frontier”).

photo courtesy of coloradovirtuallibrary.org

During that same period (1830s-1850s), settlers in increasing numbers began to move westward across the United States and into the territories that lay west of the Missouri River. Westward emigration increased dramatically after the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California in 1849. The overland journey was risky, difficult and long. Settlers took one of several “trails” – the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail or the California Trail – across mountains, plains, rivers and deserts. Weather, lack of water, mountains and raids by Native Americans who were protecting their lands were just some of the obstacles faced by those making the overland journey.

The push for a transcontinental railroad

So in the 1840s, the idea of building a railroad across the continent to the Pacific Ocean was gaining support from many quarters. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Mexico’s California territory was under U.S. control by January 1847. It was formally annexed and paid for by the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war and was signed in 1848.  

Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848, in Sutter Creek near Coloma, California. The California Gold Rush soon followed, and statehood for California occurred very quickly, on September 9, 1850. As thousands of immigrants and miners sought their fortunes in California, support increased further to unite the West Coast of the continent with the rest of the nation via rail.

The U.S. Congress appropriated funds for several survey parties during the 1850s to determine possible routes for the proposed transcontinental railroad. The choice of the route became a political and economic “football” – with groups promoting a “northern” route and others promoting a “southern” route.

image courtesy of plainshumanities.unl.edu.jpg

Theodore Judah was a civil engineer who had worked on the construction of the first railroad in California. He was a vocal proponent of a route that followed the 41st parallel, which ran through the states and territories of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California.  Many recognized that his plan was viable, but those opposing it pointed out the difficulties of such a route – including the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Building the railroad on Judah’s route would require engineering projects that had not yet been done successfully in the U.S., such as tunneling through mountains and building complex bridges across numerous ravines.

Throughout the 1850s Judah pushed his plan. In 1859, he was shown a different passage through the mountains near the now-famous Donner Pass. The route was better than his earlier one; its grade was not as steep and the railroad line would “only” have to cross one mountain instead of two.

The railroads and the routes

photo courtesy of harpers.org

Judah and his new partner incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad Company, and convinced leading business and political leaders in California to invest in it. Judah presented his route and ideas to Congress in October 1861. Many in Congress were opposed to proceeding with the transcontinental railroad because of the Civil War, but President Lincoln was a proponent of moving forward. He signed into law the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862. The Act authorized land grants (first 6,400 acres and later doubled to 12,800 acres) and government bonds ($32,000 and later $48,000) for every mile of track built. Two companies were authorized to build different parts of the railroad – the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (the Central Pacific) and the Union Pacific Railroad.

However, three railroad companies actually were involved in the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific constructed 690 miles eastward from Sacramento to Promontory Summit. The Union Pacific built 1,085 miles from the road’s eastern terminus at Council Bluffs, Iowa (near Omaha, Nebraska) westward to Promontory Summit. Paddle steamers linked Sacramento to the cities and their harbor facilities on the San Francisco Bay until later in 1869, when the last link of the Pacific Railway’s grade was completed by the third and largely forgotten railroad – the Western Pacific Railroad Company. It built 132 miles of the Pacific Railway’s track, from Oakland/Alameda to Sacramento.

image courtesy of linda hall library

Judah died on November 2, 1863 of yellow fever he contracted in Panama on his way to New York to raise capital for the Central Pacific. The line had laid its first rails a week earlier, on October 26, 1863, building the railroad east from Sacramento under the direction of Samuel Montague.

The Union Pacific, to be built from east to west, had several potential routes. One route followed the Platte River along the North Fork, crossing the Continental Divide in Wyoming and continuing on to the Green River. President Lincoln favored this route and also decided that the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad would be in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha.

Controversies and scandals

The transcontinental railroad project was not without controversy or corruption. Thomas C. Durant, a doctor turned businessman, bought over $2 million in shares of the Union Pacific Railroad Company, gaining control of the company and installing his own managers. Durant and other Union Pacific investors created a front company – the Crédit Moblier of America – that was presented as a separate business and independent contractor. It was “awarded” the contract to construct the railroad.

During the massive construction project, Crédit Moblier of America overcharged the federal government tens of millions of dollars. The company was paid by the number of miles of track laid, so the original route was lengthened whenever possible, costing taxpayers even more.

photo courtesy of wyohistory.org

Soon after the Union Pacific’s completion, Durant’s corrupt business schemes erupted into a public scandal with Congress investigating not only Durant, but also fellow Senators and Representatives who had benefited from his shady dealings. Unfortunately, similar illegal and unethical schemes were part of the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad as well.

The push to lay track (and earn money and land)

In July 1865, two months after the end of the Civil War and the assasination of Abraham Lincoln, the Union Pacific began to lay track westward at Omaha. Later, the Union Pacific built a bridge spanning the Missouri River to connect Omaha with Council Bluffs, the official eastern terminus of the railroad.  

photo courtesy of wyohistory.org

The two railroads were in a competition to see which could lay track the fastest (which meant greater revenue from the federal government as well as grants of rights-of-way). The Union Pacific hired tens of thousands of Civil War veterans to work on the railroad and because of its route had a ready supply of labor. Temporary, ramshackle settlements and “towns” trailed the Union Pacific. Similar to the settlements that grew around major mining claims, drinking, gambling, prostitution and violence were the main “products” of these settlements, and helped build the enduring mythology of the “Wild West.”

The Central Pacific had a more difficult time finding labor. It began by hiring men in the Northeast and paid to transport them to the West. But many did not stay on the job, lured by a silver strike in Nevada and other opportunities that proved easier than laying track in a difficult and harsh wilderness.

The Central Pacific sought to hire newly freed African-Americans, Mexican immigrants and also sought to use Confederate Civil War prisoners. None of these options worked on a large-scale basis, so the Central Pacific turned to Chinese laborers who had immigrated to the United States. Within three years of a trial of 50 Chinese workers, 80 percent of those building the Central Pacific – some 15,000 – were Chinese.

Dangerous work

Work on both railroads was difficult and dangerous. As the Central Pacific moved eastward through the Sierra Nevada mountains, tunnelers used dynamite to loosen granite and then dug it out and hauled it by hand. Progress was won foot-by-foot through the mountains. In addition, the railroad had to span deep ravines, and work continued through winter blizzards and spring flooding.

image courtesy of walmart

While work on the Union Pacific was somewhat easier from the standpoint of geography, its workers faced attacks by Native American tribes who resisted the intrusion of the “iron horse” on their lands. Warriors of the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes raided railroad work parties that armed themselves against the attacks. The Union Pacific was also protected in part by the U.S. Army. Nonetheless, the raids by the Native Americans slowed work significantly as they attacked surveying parties, smaller work gangs, stole livestock and even managed at times to pull up track that had been laid, derailing locomotives and rolling stock.

The Central Pacific moving ever-eastward, and the Union Pacific moving westward, sought to lay track as quickly as possible – after all, each mile meant additional land and revenue for the owners of the respective companies.

Despite having started nearly two years before the Union Pacific, the Central Pacific had only laid 100 miles of track by the end of 1867 because of the challenging terrain of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. However, after conquering the mountains, the Central Pacific was able to lay track at a swift pace across the state of Nevada. The railroad reached the border of Nevada and Utah Territory in 1868.

photo courtesy of wyohistory.org

Concurrently, the Union Pacific had pushed westward through the Nebraska Territory (which became a state in 1867) and the Wyoming Territory. The railroad had generally followed the paths of the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails and had laid about four times as much track as its competitor.   

Reaching Utah Territory

Both companies were pushing forward with construction, heading toward the Great Salt Lake. In their rush to lay track (again, for government bonds and land), both railroad companies worried little about construction standards – and therefore built sub-par bridges or laid track that had to be rebuilt later. The two railroads rushed towards each other across the northern part of the Utah Territory; however, no specific “meeting point” had been established when President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act in 1862.

Neither railroad company was willing to stop work and let the other railroad meet it. In March, President Ulysses S. Grant (who had only recently been inaugurated on March 4) announced he would withhold federal funds until the railroads agreed on a meeting point. On April 9, 1869, nearly seven years after the enabling legislation had been passed, the U.S. Congress set the junction of the two lines at Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah Territory. Promontory Summit was approximately 690 track-miles from Sacramento and 1,086 track-miles from Omaha.

Golden spikes at Promontory Summit

photo courtesy of linda hall library

Just one month later, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific’s engine Jupiter and the Union Pacific’s engine No. 119 faced each other at that point to signal the meeting of the two railroads. At 12:57 p.m. local time, as railroad executives drove home ceremonial golden spikes, the announcement was telegraphed of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Celebrations took place across the country – from San Francisco on the West Coast to Washington, D.C.

Despite the corruption, deaths and injuries of countless laborers, environmental destruction (which, of course, was not a consideration in the 1860s) and the damage done to the hunting grounds and ways of life of numerous Native American tribes, the United States had a transcontinental route that united its two coasts. At the time, it was one of the world’s greatest engineering and construction feats.

The legacy of the transcontinental railroad

Perhaps the impact of the transcontinental railroad cannot be fully understood in 2019. For the first time, the United States was truly united – tied together coast-to-coast by over 1,900 miles of steel rails; the primary transportation mode of the time.

photo courtesy of tcrr.org

What did this mean to Americans in 1869 and in the years afterward? The six-month trip by ship to California from Eastern ports had been reduced to two weeks by train. The cost to make the trip before the completion of the railroad was nearly $1,000 (the equivalent of more than $15,500 today). Once the transcontinental railroad was completed and passenger service began, the price dropped to $150 (about $2,300 today). Transporting freight and goods also became quicker and less expensive.

The Pacific Railway revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West. The sparsely populated western states and territories were able to align with the states east of the Missouri River much faster than they would have without the railroad. The western states and territories changed in just a few decades from the “frontier” into a vast region in which towns and cities grew. The region generated agricultural, industrial and commercial production at an accelerated pace as the population of the country increased dramatically.

The destruction of the Native American way of life

photo courtesy of invaluable.com

The most negative impact of the transcontinental railroad was the impact on the Native Americans of the Great Plains. While difficult, the construction of the Union Pacific was much faster and easier than the construction of the Central Pacific. But when the Union Pacific reached Indian-held lands, the work became much more dangerous. Native Americans viewed the railroad as a violation of the treaties negotiated with the United States. Native American war parties fought many small battles along the route; the railroad and the U.S. Army fought back. But the Union Pacific turned the tide after it hired sharpshooters to slaughter the buffaloes that were the primary source of food and other necessities of the Plains Indians.

Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s first command after the Civil War was the vast territory west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains; his top priority was to protect the construction of the Union Pacific Railroad. He wrote Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (later President Grant) in 1867, “we are not going to let thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress” of the Union Pacific.

photo courtesy of indiancountrybooks.com

Gen. Philip Sheridan succeeded Sherman as commander of the U.S. Army in that vast region. According to historians he used “scorched earth” tactics, similar to those he utilized in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. By decimating the buffalo population, the U.S. Army and the Union Pacific were able to defeat the Plains Indians.

The devastation of the buffalo population signaled the end of the Indian Wars, and Native Americans were pushed onto reservations. Sheridan later acknowledged the role of the railroad in changing the American West. In his 1878 annual report of the General of the U.S. Army, he wrote, “We took away their [the Plains Indians] country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them, and it was for this and against this they made war. Could anyone expect less? Then, why wonder at Indian difficulties? ”

For all its many benefits, the transcontinental railroad effectively ended the traditional Native American way of life on the Great Plains of the United States.

Western railroads flourished after the Pacific Railway opened

The completion of the transcontinental railroad did not actually connect to the Atlantic Ocean or Pacific Ocean but merely connected Omaha to Sacramento. A short time later, the Western Pacific Railroad Company’s 132 miles of track connected Sacramento to Oakland/Alameda on San Francisco Bay.

The Union Pacific did not connect Omaha to Council Bluffs until completing the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge in 1872. Existing railroads east of Council Bluffs connected the eastern terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad with the East (and the Atlantic Ocean).

The transcontinental railroad was only the beginning of the railroad building boom in the western half of the United States. Several railroads were built subsequently to connect it with other population centers in the various states and territories.

In 1869, the Kansas Pacific Railway began construction of a swing bridge across the Missouri River between Kansas City, Missouri and Kansas City, Kansas which connected railroads on both sides of the Missouri while also allowing passage of paddle steamers on the river. After completion of the bridge – the first bridge across that major river – this became another major east-west railroad.

photo courtesy of themuseumoftheamericanrailroad.org

The original transcontinental route had bypassed the two largest cities in the region – Denver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Feeder railroad lines were soon built to service these two and other cities and states along the route.

In order to hasten the completion of the Kansas Pacific Railroad to Denver, construction started in Denver in March 1870, moving east to meet the rail line being built west from Kansas City. The two lines met at Comanche Crossing, Kansas Territory, on August 15, 1870. With rail service, Denver was destined to become the largest city in Colorado and its future capital. The Kansas Pacific Railroad linked with the Denver Pacific Railway via Denver to Cheyenne in 1870.

Kansas City’s head start in connecting to a true transcontinental railroad contributed to it rather than Omaha becoming the dominant rail center west of Chicago. The Kansas Pacific became part of the Union Pacific in 1880.

image courtesy of ksha.org

The Central Pacific Railroad finally had a direct route to San Francisco in 1885 when it merged with the Southern Pacific Railroad to create the Southern Pacific Company. In 1901 the Union Pacific took control of the Southern Pacific; however the U.S. Supreme Court forced it to divest the Southern Pacific because of monopoly issues. It took 95 years, but the railroads came together in 1996 when the Union Pacific purchased the Southern Pacific.

FreightWaves note: Union Pacific Railroad will host a ceremony on May 9 at Ogden Union Station. It will feature iconic steam locomotives, Living Legend No. 844 and Big Boy No. 4014. The two will meet, recreating the historic image taken at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. The program begins at 10:30 a.m. MDT next Thursday!

FreightWaves thanks the Linda Hall Library, History.com and Wikipedia for material that contributed to this article.

The Linda Hall Library is the world’s foremost independent research library devoted to science, engineering and technology. A not-for-profit, privately funded institution, the Library is open to the public free of charge. It is located on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Story by Scott Mall for freightwaves.com

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