A Historical Outlook on its Construction
of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s is a story that heralds the courage
and innovation of the construction companies and workers who built it.
the mid-1820s the first steam-powered railroad lines, such the Baltimore &
Ohio or the Mohawk & Hudson, had just begun to offer passenger and freight
service. The contractors and construction companies who built the railroads were
already aspiring to bigger and better things. At the time, Eastern railroads were
seeking a way to cross the Allegheny Mountains and reach Ohio or the Great Lakes.
Pioneering spirits wanted to figure out how to build a railroad that would cross
the American continent.
One such pioneer was Asa Whitney, a New York tea
merchant who began to promote the idea of a transcontinental railroad in 1844
after returning from China. Fully aware of the benefits such a railroad promised
for trade with China and East India, Whitney declared his intention to build a
railroad from Lake Michigan through the South Pass to the Pacific, backed with
a land grant 60 miles wide along the length of the road.
his proposal to Congress in 1848, but it was voted down due to its unrealistic
construction scheme. Another, better-prepared proposition was presented to Congress
in 1850 and again in 1851, but it failed to earn sufficient support because of
conflicting interests between the Northern and Southern states. The Southern states
were opposed to the project altogether. Whitney then turned to the English government
and proposed a similar plan for a transcontinental railroad through Canada. This
attempt failed as well.
Whitney ran out of money and finally gave up his campaign in 1852. However, his
dream of the Pacific Railroad stayed alive. The discovery of gold in California
not only created the market for the first important transcontinental traffic,
it also significantly changed the public attitude towards the West. The West was
no longer considered a wasteland of mountains and plains. It was seen as the land
of opportunity. Scores of people wanted to travel beyond the Mississippi, through
the territories that stretched to the Pacific Coast.
In 1853, Congress
passed an act providing for the survey of possible railroad lines from the Mississippi
to the Pacific. At least five routes were surveyed, and each received support
from a different sector. Unfortunately, the multitude of diverse interests among
the supporters and an increasing rift between the North and the South rendered
agreement on a route impossible.
In 1860, Republican Abraham Lincoln won
election to the White House on an anti-slavery ticket. His election almost immediately
caused the longstanding rift between the North and the South to intensify, and
very shortly thereafter the Southern states followed South Carolina into secession.
The violent conflict that would later be known as the Secession War, or the American
Civil War, had begun.
However, with the Southern states out of the picture
the major antagonism to the transcontinental railroad was gone, and both the Senate
and House of Representatives were able to pass the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862
and 1864. These laws granted rights of way and use of building materials along
the way, a 20-million-acre land grant and government support for loans of 60 million
dollars to companies that would build the transcontinental railroad and its feeder
lines. Those companies included:
- the Union Pacific Railroad, to be
built from the Platte River Valley in Nebraska to the border between Nevada and
California, with two feeder lines from Omaha and Sioux City;
- the Central
Pacific Railroad, to be built as a feeder line from Sacramento over the Sierra
Nevada to meet the Union Pacific eastwards and to San Francisco in the West;
the Leavenworth, Pawnee & Western, later to be known as the Union Pacific
Eastern Division, which was to link the 100th meridian Southeast with Kansas City.
The charters awarded to the railroads provided rights of way and
use of stone and timber to build the roadbed, and granted 6,400 acres of land
for each mile of railroad built. Based on the estimates made after the surveys,
the government agreed to provide nearly half the needed capital for the project,
about 60 million dollars. More than 50 million dollars would have to be raised
from private investors.
Construction Begins, 1863
Central Pacific broke ground in Sacramento, California in January, 1863. The Union
Pacific broke ground at the Missouri River bluffs near Omaha, Nebraska in December,
1863. A competition arose between the construction crews of the two railroads,
to see who could finish first.
In December 1862, the Central Pacific Railroad
awarded its first construction contract to Charles Crocker & Company. The
construction company subcontracted the first 18 miles to firms with hands-on experience,
and the Central Pacific reached Newcastle, California on June 4, 1864. From that
point on, it was a long haul up the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
construction of the rail line was a job with an enormous scope, and it was often
a painfully slow process. There was also constant pressure to meet time or geographical
deadlines. The construction crews had to cut grade, build snowsheds, blast through
hard rock and lay track through snow. Deep fills, switchback routes, high trestles,
huge rock cuts and fifteen tunnels were necessary to make it over the Sierras.
To create this rail line, an enormous amount of tools, materials and supplies
were required. Each mile of track required 100 tons of rail, about 2,500 ties
and two or three tons of spikes and fish plates (metal pieces that joined the
rails and prevented climatic expansion and contraction of the metal). Some of
the tools needed included wheelbarrows, horse drawn scrapers, two-wheel dump carts,
shovels, axes, crowbars, blasting powder, quarry tools and iron rods. On top of
that, locomotives, wheel trucks, switch mechanisms and foundry tools were needed
Providing these supplies was no small challenge. All supplies
for the Central Pacific came from the East, and the Panama Canal shortcut did
not exist at that time. All material, rails, rolling stock and machinery was shipped
around Cape Horn on the southernmost tip of South America, en route to California.
River steamers then took the material upriver to Sacramento, where it was offloaded
to platform cars and hauled up into the mountains. If a shipment didn't leave
the East Coast on time (and this happened frequently) or if an accident occurred
in the shipping, the resulting delay could create a great hardship. The contractors
often cut corners, spiking only seven of every ten rails or allowing other shoddy
work along the line.
In 1865, the construction company faced another shortage,
a labor shortage. They hired Chinese workers against the wishes of the other laborers
and their foreman, but when the first group proved to be efficient and hardworking,
the contractor recruited more from California and China itself. It was the Chinese
men and their back-breaking labor that would get the railroad through the Sierra
the Central Pacific crews were struggling through the mountains, they heard tales
of the speed with which the Union Pacific crews were able to work. As they grew
closer to the point where the two railroads would meet, the Central Pacific crews
decided they had something to prove. Spurred on by their supervisors, on April
28, 1869 they laid an extraordinary ten miles of track across the Utah desert
between sunrise and sunset. They used 25,800 ties, 3,520 rails, 55,000 spikes
and 7,040 fishplates. The Irish and Chinese crews worked together and completed
the ten mile stretch in 12 hours. This feat has never duplicated by human beings
in railroad construction since. It also brought the Central Pacific rail within
ten miles of the Union Pacific line, ensuring the Union Pacific could not hope
to replicate the achievement.
Led by construction superintendent Samuel
B. Reed, chief engineer Grenville M. Dodge and contractors John S. and Dan T.
Casement, the task facing Union Pacific construction crews was relatively easy
at first. Their route went largely through flat plains, following the Oregon Trail
through the Platte Valley, then crossing the Continental Divide through the Black
Hills in Wyoming.
While the terrain was comparatively easy to work in,
Union Pacific construction crews faced one problem that their Central Pacific
rivals didn't: Indians. In Nebraska, the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes continually
harassed Union Pacific construction crews. Forts were established along the line
to protect the railroad. When the workers weren't at work or asleep, they were
at war with rifles at their sides, ready for the next Indian attack. Sometimes
the Indians fought the workers; other times, they damaged the progress made by
the construction crews. In August 1867 at Plum Creek, Nebraska, Cheyennes pried
up some rails and caused the derailment of a freight train. The train crashed
and the Indians looted the cars.
The Union Pacific's construction materials
were sailed up the Missouri or brought in by wagon. Their biggest difficulty lay
in getting railroad ties, since there were few natural trees as were found in
the Sierras. They had to import the ties until the Chicago & Western railroad
line was extended to reach the Black Hills of Wyoming and the Wasatch Mountains
Both companies laid track essentially the same way. They sent crews
far ahead to do a preliminary survey, then location surveys. The graders would
grade 100 miles of track at a time. In the mountains they graded as much as 200
to 300 miles at a time since the actual building took so much longer. Bridge,
culvert and trestle crews worked five to 20 miles ahead. Then the tracklayers
came in, grabbing rails out of horse-drawn carts. Then came the men to pound in
the spikes. At the end of each line was a base camp that supplied material and
food to the workers. As construction of the line was completed every 100 to 200
miles, the base camp would move up to keep in proximity to the crews.
Finished With a Single Word: "Done"
the two companies approached the Promontory Mountains in Utah, both realized there
was only one route through. Blasting began on both sides to lay track. The east
slope was more difficult as the grade was steeper. On both sides, fills and trestles
were necessary for crossing deep ravines. Finally on April 9, the Union Pacific,
and on April 11, the Central Pacific, stopped trying to lay tracks ahead. Congress
established that they would meet at Promontory Summit.
By April 16, 1869
the two crews were only 50 miles apart. The Union Pacific crew was delayed because
it ran out of ties. They also had to build three more trestles to make the summit.
8 was the target date for the union of the two railroads. On May 7, the two lines
were just 2,500 feet apart. Former California Governor Leland Stanford traveled
to Utah along with other officials from California and Nevada, bringing two golden
spikes with him. One was made by David Hewes, one of the Central Pacific's largest
supply contractors. The other was sent by The San Francisco "News Letter."
West Evans, the contractor who supplied most of the Central Pacific ties, hand-polished
and waxed a special last tie made out of laurelwood. The Pacific Union Express
Company sent a silver plated sledge for the final blow.
The Union Pacific
team was not prepared by May 8. Many of the dignitaries traveling on their end
got held up by weather or by labor disputes. However, on May 9 the Union Pacific
laid the final 2,500 feet of track, leaving one length of rail separation. The
two trains from the east arrived the morning of May 10th.
At noon on May
10, 1869 a ceremony began with approximately 600 people in attendance. The two
engines, the Central Pacific's Jupiter and the Union Pacific's No. 119, stood
cowcatcher to cowcatcher at each end of the last rail.
At 12:20 p.m., one
official from each railroad joined together to lay in the ceremonial last tie
using the gold spikes. The silver sledgehammer was used to "drive" the
spikes, but not enough to damage them. (The real final tie, spike and sledge were
ordinary.) The two trains were then driven together, and a bottle of champagne
was broken over the laurel tie. A telegraph went out across the nation with the
simple message: "Done." The transcontinental railroad was complete.
At that instant in Promontory Point, Utah, coast-to-coast travel time was reduced
from four to six months to six days. In just seven years, the Union Pacific railroad
had built 1,086 miles of railroad lines from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific
had built 690 miles from Sacramento, California. Both railroads had crossed a
major mountain range, the Rocky Mountains in the East and the Sierra Nevada in
While the Transcontintental Railroad was started in the midst
of a war that divided America, its completion marked a new unity and connection
between the east and west coasts that further defined the United States as a single
nation. The railroad signaled the death knell for the "western frontier"
as it made possible the large-scale immigration to, agricultural and other trade
with, and ultimately the industrialization of the western U.S.