THE WEDDING OF THE RAILS
The Federal government proposed a lucrative financing package. They would pay the builder $16,000 per mile over level terrain, $32,000 per mile over uneven ground, and $48,000 per mile in the mountains. Additionally, they would transfer to the builder 10 square miles of government land (adjacent to the railroad line) for every one mile of track laid. The Railroad Act specified that the central route would be followed, that the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads would be the builders (each was required to build 50 miles of track per year), and the funding would be guaranteed at the rates above.
Things changed, however, when the railroad reached Indian land, and progress slowed. The Native tribes saw the construction as a violation of their treaties with the government. They sent war parties to raid the camps of the laborers. The Union Pacific responded by hiring hunters to kill the Buffalo, the Indians primary food source, to force the tribes to move on and out of their way. It’s the sad and well known story of the Iron Horse changing the lifestyle of the plains Indians.
The Central Pacific Railroad laid 690 miles of track over the torturous terrain of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountain Ranges. The Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles of track, avoiding most of the mountains but having to deal with hostile Indian Nations along the way. The two builders did not always take the most direct route however. By wandering about, they received more money and land grants from the government. One consequence was that their route did not pass through the two largest cities of the region, Denver and Salt Lake City.
While Stanford drove in the final spike, telegraph operators on scene clicked once for every strike of his hammer. Each individual click was sent to both the east and west coasts simultaneously. As soon as the joining of the rails was complete, a message was telegraphed out. It consisted of a single word - “DONE.”