The 1st Transcontinental Railroad

In 1845, Ava Whitney long dreamed of a transcontinental railroad. He petitioned congressional leaders to grant him funds to build the 1st transcontinental railroad. He explained that the workers on the railroad would be paid in land, which would be next to the line. He did this to attract settlers to the land in order to have customers that would utilize the railroad line. Congress did not grant his plan, however, Whitney continued to petition for the railroad, publishing articles and maps and submitting them to congress. Whitney’s maps were the first that congress attained that planned the building of the railroad.

Map of the Transcontinental Railroad.

During 1862, Western expansion was growing rapidly. This caused business owners and farmers to look to the railroad to ship goods and to travel. Due to the westward expansion of farmers and the gold rush, a railroad was soon needed to connect the east and west. The Pacific Railroad Act contracted the Central Pacific, and the Union Pacific to construct a railroad that would connect the east and west portions of the country. The Central Pacific, constructed their part coming from the west in Sacramento, California, and the Union Pacific, constructing the portion from the east, starting in Omaha, Nebraska.

First, some railroad background during this time. Railroads in the United States started with the introduction of the steam engine, and 9,000 miles of track was built in the eastern part of the country. However, people were starting to move west and populate the land, including farmers who needed to ship their crops. The interest in the west was increased by the gold rush in 1849. However, traveling out west was treacherous, travelers had to endure mountain ranges, deserts, and adverse weather conditions. The only other option was to travel by water on a ship, however, this was risky because of various diseases.

After much congressional indecision, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act, beginning the construction of the railroad. Both railroad companies received 12,800 acres of land and almost $50,000 per mile.

The leaders of the Central Pacific who oversaw the project was Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, these individuals were dubbed the “Big Four”. These were businessmen who were not familiar with railroad operations or construction, however, the financed the project, and were able to attain government assistance.

The Union Pacific’s part of the project was led by Dr. Thomas Durant. In May of 1866, construction on the Union Pacific’s portion of the project had begun. As the Union Pacific began its construction, small towns began to appear alongside the railroad.

The Central Pacific progressed slowly on its portion of railroad. The railroad had a high turnover on workers because of the working conditions and risks involved. The leader of the Central Pacific part of the construction, Charles Crocker, hired immigrants from China to increase productivity. These workers proved to be efficient and work progressed as planned. However, due to the rough mountain ranges, the work was extremely risky and dangerous. The workers used dynamite to create tunnels through the mountains, and built bridges traversing the vast and dangerous terrain.

The railroad companies had difficulty attaining workers because of the great risk that was present in building the railroad. It was backbreaking labor, and workers worked in adverse conditions, and were not immune to catching disease. In addition, workers were threatened with attacks by animals and nearby Native Indian tribes, who did not want the railroad disturbing their land. The mountainous terrain and the use of explosives to create tunnels were also treacherous, thus, making it an extremely dangerous endeavor.

In 1869, newly elected president Ulysses S. Grant, announced that he would not continue to fund the project until the two companies established a location that they would meet. The companies decided that the location would be Promontory Point, Utah. On May 10, 1869, the railroad was completed, linking the east and west. The last railroad spike, the golden spike, was driven with much media and praise. One of the most extraordinary engineering feats of the 19th century had been completed.

Upon completion, the president of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific drove in the final spikes, and both missed the spike on the first try! Once the final spikes were driven, a telegraph went to every government office in the country. Trains came from the east and west to Promontory Point, bringing champagne and officials from the west, and a band from the east. After the final spike was driven, the engineers of the two trains shook hands and took an iconic picture with all the workers and officials on site. The locomotives used were 4-4-0 American types, and were staples of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.

Celebratory photo taken on May 10, 1869, after the completion of the railroad.

So, why was the transcontinental railroad important? It proved to be an engineering feat and changed the way people traveled about the country. It made a significant impact on the economic state of the country, boosting production and employment. Before the railroad was built, it would cost a person in excess of $1000 to travel across the country, making it difficult for most people. They had to travel by stagecoach and took them 6 months through rough terrain and mountain ranges. However, with the newly constructed railroad, the price was decreased to $150, and passengers could travel in comfort, and reach their destination in days, instead of months. This provided opportunity for people in the eastern portion of the country to travel west and establish farms and other businesses. The building of the railroads sparked even more interest in the West, and thus, industries arose in California and other Western portions of the country. The railroad allowed farmers and businesses to ship their products, and as a result, built next to the tracks. The railroad was imperative for Western expansion and proved to be a vital lifeline for Western settlers.


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