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Sunday, November 25, 2012


On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford hammered a golden spike downward joining the rails of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads. The event occurred at Promontory Summit, Utah, and signified the completion of the world’s first transcontinental railroad. It connected mid-west America with the Pacific coast. Seven years earlier the decision to launch the project had been finalized when Abraham Lincoln signed the Railroad Act on July 1, 1862. The idea of a transcontinental railroad had been talked about for 30 years but controversy about the route, the choice of builders, and how the government would fund the project could never be resolved.

Three different routes were proposed. Because a railroad would be invaluable to the states and territories it crossed, each route had its own group of supporters. The “northern route” through the Dakotas, Montana, and into Oregon was dismissed quickly as snow and winter weather was thought to be too extreme. The “southern route” across the New Mexico Territory and around the bottom of the Rocky Mountains was attractive but because the Civil War was being fought, the Federal government could not allow the railroad to be located so near the Confederate stronghold in Texas. The “central route” through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada held promise but there was reluctance to build it across the Rockies, and weather might still be an issue.

Several groups of potential builders were considered. After some political wrangling, two parties were clearly in the running. A group of investors in California were financially prepared to move forward (although no group would be able to finance the entire project without government sponsorship). It was led by familiar names - Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker. You cannot travel around California without encountering institutions immortalizing these families. These men formed the Central Pacific Railroad. In the east, financier Thomas Durant worked some suspicious stock deals and promised political patronage to become a player. His group formed the Union Pacific Railroad.

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.

In 1863, the Central Pacific started laying track beginning at Sacramento and moving eastward toward the mountains. At first they made great progress but construction slowed near the Sierra Nevada’s. Because of the terrain and the winter snows, the railroad needed more workers. They hired immigrant workers from China by the thousands. Most of the work was laying wooden ties and attaching the rails to them with spikes. All of the work was done manually. It was also necessary, moving eastward, to construct tunnels. They had to be blasted using black powder. The danger and the working conditions were severe but the Chinese workers distinguished themselves by building 15 tunnels. The largest was 1,659’ long, 32’ high, and 16’ wide. It was also necessary to have communications during the construction so telegraph lines were built alongside the tracks, matching then mile by mile. While in the mountains, the average progress was about one foot per day. After completion of the Central Pacific portion, some Chinese workers returned to China, but others sent for their families and settled near the San Francisco Bay area, and throughout the west.

The Union Pacific’s start was delayed until 1865 due to the Civil War. Once they got started at Omaha, Nebraska, movement was swift across the prairie. Most of the railroad’s labor was supplied by veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies, and recently arriving Irish immigrants. Later, when the Union Pacific approached Utah, the Mormon Church contracted to supply the labor to build track across that territory. 

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.

The two builders finally met at Promontory Summit Utah. The transcontinental railroad was one of the most significant technological accomplishments of the 19th Century. It allowed trade and development to move from the east coast to the west coast, accelerated the population growth of middle- America, and immediately shortened the cross country trip from six months to one week. But, it was also a factor in the decline of Native American land and culture.

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.”


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