First Transcontinental Railroad

First Transcontinental Railroad
This article refers to a railroad built in the United States between Omaha and Sacramento, completed in 1869. For other transcontinental railroads see transcontinental railroad.
At the ceremony for the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869
Transcontinental Railroad 75th Anniversary Issue of 1944

The First Transcontinental Railroad (known originally as the "Pacific Railroad" and later as the "Overland Route") was a railroad line built in the United States of America between 1863 and 1869 by the Central Pacific Railroad of California and the Union Pacific Railroad that connected its statutory Eastern terminus at Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska[1][2] (via Ogden, Utah, and Sacramento, California) with the Pacific Ocean at Oakland, California on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay opposite San Francisco. By linking with the existing railway network of the Eastern United States, the road thus connected the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States by rail for the first time. The line was popularly known as the Overland Route after the principal passenger rail service that operated over the length of the line through the end of 1962.[3]

The construction and operation of the line was authorized by the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864 during the American Civil War. Congress supported it with 30-year U.S. government bonds and extensive land grants of government-owned land. Completion of the railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line. It was one of the crowning achievements in the crossing of plains and high mountains westward by the Union Pacific and eastward by the Central Pacific. Opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869, with the driving of the "Last Spike" at Promontory Summit, Utah, the road established a mechanized transcontinental transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West.

The Pacific Railroad constituted one of the most significant and ambitious American technological feats of the 19th century following in the footsteps of the building of the Erie Canal in the 1820s and the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama by the Panama Railroad in 1855. It served as a vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the late 19th-century United States. The transcontinental railroad slowly ended most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains that had preceded it. The railroads led to the decline of traffic on the Oregon and California Trail which had populated much of the west. They provided much faster, safer and cheaper (8 days and about $65 economy) transport east and west for people and goods across half a continent.

The railroads' sales of land-grant lots, and the transport provided for timber and crops, led to the rapid settling of the supposed "Great American Desert". The main workers on the Union Pacific were many Army veterans and Irish immigrants. Most of the engineers and supervisors were Army veterans who had learned their trade keeping the trains running during the American Civil War. The Central Pacific, facing a labor shortage in the West, relied on mostly Chinese immigrant laborers and were a part of the Coolie slave trade. They did prodigious work building the line over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and across Nevada to the meeting in Utah.

Pacific Railroad Bond, City and County of San Francisco, 1865

The railroad was motivated in part to bind the eastern and western states of the United States together. The Central Pacific started work in 1863. Due to competition with the War for workers, rails, ties, railroad engines and supplies, the Union Pacific RR did not start construction until July 1865. Completion of the railroad substantially accelerated populating the West, while contributing to the decline of territory controlled by the Native Americans in these regions. In 1879, the Supreme Court of the United States formally established, in its decision regarding Union Pacific Railroad vs. United States (99 U.S. 402), the official "date of completion" of the Transcontinental Railroad as November 6, 1869.

The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad combined operations in 1870 and formally merged in 1885. Union Pacific originally bought the Southern Pacific in 1901, but in 1913 was forced to divest it. In 1996 the Union Pacific acquired the Southern Pacific. Much of the original right-of-way is still in use today and owned by the Union Pacific.

Needing rapid communication, the companies built telegraph lines along the railroad rights of way as the track was laid. The linkage made these lines easier to protect and maintain than the original First Transcontinental Telegraph lines, which went over much of the original routes of the Mormon Trail and the Central Nevada Route through central Utah and Nevada. They soon superseded the earlier lines, which were mostly abandoned.



Route of the first American transcontinental railroad from Sacramento, California, to Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Profile of the Pacific Railroad from Omaha to San Francisco

The Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles (1,749 km) of track, starting in Council Bluffs, and continuing across the Missouri River and through Nebraska (Elkhorn, now Omaha, Grand Island, North Platte, Ogallala, Sidney, Nebraska), the Colorado Territory (Julesburg), the Wyoming Territory (Cheyenne, Laramie, Green River, Evanston), the Utah Territory (Ogden, Brigham City, Corinne), and connecting with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit.[4] The route did not pass through the two biggest cities in the Great American DesertDenver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Feeder lines were built to service the two cities.

The Central Pacific laid 690 miles (1,100 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, California, and continuing over the Sierra Nevada mountains into Nevada. It passed through Newcastle, California and Truckee, California, Reno, Nevada, Wadsworth, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, and Wells, Nevada, before connecting with the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory. Later, the western part of the route was extended to the Alameda Terminal in Alameda, California, and shortly thereafter, to the Oakland Long Wharf at Oakland Point in Oakland, California. When the eastern end of the CPRR was extended to Ogden, it ended the short period of a boom town for Promontory. Before the CPRR was completed, developers were building other railroads in Nevada and California to connect to it.[5]

At first, the Union Pacific was not directly connected to the Eastern U.S. rail network. Instead, trains had to be ferried across the Missouri River. In 1869 the Hannibal Bridge at Kansas City was built and allowed connection to the Kansas Pacific Railway. The Kansas Pacific then linked with the Denver Pacific Railway via Denver to Cheyenne in 1870. In 1873, the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge opened and directly connected the Union Pacific mainline to the East.

Modern-day Interstate 80 closely follows the path of the railroad, with one exception. Between Echo, Utah and Wells, Nevada, Interstate 80 passes through the larger Salt Lake City and passes along the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. The Railroad had blasted and tunneled its way down the Weber River canyon to Ogden and around the north shore of the Great Salt Lake (roughly paralleling modern Interstate 84 and State Route 30). While routing the railroad along the Weber River, Mormon workers signed the Thousand Mile Tree, to commemorate the milestone. A historic marker has been placed there.[6] The portion of the railroad around the north shore of the lake is no longer intact. In 1904, the Lucin Cutoff, a causeway across the center of the Great Salt Lake, shortened the route by approximately 43 miles (69 km), traversing Promontory Point instead of Promontory Summit.


The official poster announcing the Pacific Railroad's grand opening.

California Developments

Asa Whitney

Talk of a transcontinental railroad started in 1830, shortly after steam powered railroads were invented in Great Britain and began to be introduced into the United States. This talk intensified as railroad technology advanced and the Oregon Territory and California were added to United States Territory in 1846 and 1848. Early debates were not so much over whether it would be built, but how it would be paid for and what route it should follow:

Initially, a "northern route", roughly following the path of the Lewis and Clark Expedition along the Missouri River through present-day northern Montana to Oregon Territory, was considered impractical because of high winter snows.

One of the most prominent champions of the central route railroad was Asa Whitney (a distant cousin to cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney). Whitney envisioned a route from Chicago and the Great Lakes to northern California, paid for by the sale of land to settlers along the route.

In June 1845 Whitney led a team along part of the proposed route to assess its feasibility. Whitney traveled widely to solicit support from businessmen and politicians, printed maps and pamphlets, and submitted several proposals to Congress, all at his own expense. Legislation to begin construction of the Pacific Railroad (called the Memorial of Asa Whitney) was first introduced to Congress by Representative Zadock Pratt.[7] Congress did not act on Whitney's proposal.

The Oregon Question was settled in 1846 when the United States and Great Britain agreed to a Canadian–U.S. boundary at the 49th parallel. US forces took over California in 1846, which came under formal United States control in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. The discovery of gold in California in January 1848 set off the California Gold Rush, and the number of settlers going to California skyrocketed. By 1850 California had enough settlers arriving by the California Trail and by sea to become the 31st state.

Whitney saw a version of the central route completed, although he was not formally involved.

The southern route and the Gadsden Purchase

Concerns lingered that snow would make the central route to California impractical. A survey after 1848 indicated that the best route for a southern route had been overlooked when the US accepted a boundary proposed by Mexico in their peace treaty. With Santa Anna in power in Mexico, the US in 1853 made the Gadsden Purchase, acquiring the southern portions of what is now New Mexico and Arizona for $10,000,000. The southern route could now be built entirely within U.S. territory.

Because the US Congress was divided between slave and non-slave state members, it could not reach agreement on supporting construction of a particular route. Each region wanted the railroad because of its benefits. The decision became embroiled in the divisive sectional dispute that eventually turned into the American Civil War. The southern route was not constructed until 1880, when the Southern Pacific Railroad crossed Arizona territory.

Theodore Judah

Theodore Judah, architect of the Transcontinental Railroad and first chief engineer of the Central Pacific.

The next big champion of the central route was Theodore Judah. Judah undertook to survey and plan a way through what was one of the chief obstacles of a central route to California: a way over the high and rugged Sierra Nevada mountains.

Judah was chief engineer for the newly formed Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852, the first railroad built west of the Mississippi River. Although the railroad was to go bankrupt, he was convinced that a properly financed railroad could pass from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada mountains to reach the Great Basin and hook up with rail lines coming from the East.

In 1856 Judah wrote a 13,000-word proposal in support of a Pacific railroad and distributed it to Cabinet secretaries, congressmen, and other influential people. In September 1859, Judah was chosen to be the accredited lobbyist for the Pacific Railroad Convention. The convention approved his plan to survey, finance, and engineer the road. Judah returned to Washington in December 1859. He had a lobbying office in the United States Capitol, received an audience with President James Buchanan, and represented the Convention before Congress.

In February 1860 Iowa Representative Samuel Curtis introduced a bill to build the railroad. It passed the House but died when it could not be reconciled with the Senate version.

Judah returned to California in 1860. He continued to search for a more practical route through the Sierras suitable for a railroad. In the summer of 1860, a local miner, Daniel Strong, had surveyed a route over the Sierras for a wagon toll road, a route he realized would also suit a railroad. He described his discovery in a letter to Judah. Together they formed an association to solicit subscriptions from local merchants and businessmen to support their proposed railroad.

Lewis M. Clement

From January or February 1861 until July, Judah and Strong led a 10-person expedition to survey the route for the railroad over the Sierra Nevada, through Clipper Gap, Emigrant Gap, Donner Pass, and south to Truckee. They discovered a way across the Sierras that was gradual enough to be made suitable (with much work) for a railroad.

Before major construction could begin, Judah traveled back to New York City to raise funds to buy out The Big Four. Shortly after he arrived in New York, however, Judah died on November 2, 1863. He had contracted yellow fever while traveling over the Panama Railroad's transit of the Isthmus of Panama.[8] The CPRR Engineering Department was taken over by Samuel S. Montegue as his successor as Chief Engineer, and Chief Assistant Engineer (later Acting Chief Engineer) Lewis Metzler Clement who also became Superintendent of Track.

The Big Four and Central Pacific Railroad

Main articles: The Big Four and Central Pacific Railroad
Leland Stanford's official gubernatorial portrait

Collis Huntington, a hardware merchant, heard Judah's presentation about the railroad at the St. Charles Hotel in Sacramento in November 1860. He invited Judah to his office to hear his proposal in detail. Huntington changed Judah's strategy of finding several investors and instead sought to raise the money from three partners: Mark Hopkins, his business partner; James Bailey, a jeweler; Leland Stanford, a grocer, future governor of California, and founder of Stanford University; and Charles Crocker, a dry-goods merchant and eventual owner of Crocker Banks. They initially invested $1,500 each and formed a board of directors: The investors became known as The Big Four and their railroad was called the Central Pacific Railroad. Each were eventually to make millions of dollars off their continuing investments and control of the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR).

Pacific Railroad Act

The Pony Express from 1860 to 1861 was to prove that the Central Nevada Route across Nevada and Utah and the sections of the Oregon Trail across Wyoming and Nebraska was viable during the winter. With the American Civil War raging and a secessionist movement in California gaining steam, the apparent need for the railroad became more urgent.

In 1861 Curtis again introduced a bill to establish the railroad, but it did not pass. After the secession of the southern states, the House of Representatives on May 6, 1862, and the Senate on June 20 finally approved it. Lincoln signed it into law on July 1. The act established the two main lines—the Central Pacific from the west and the Union Pacific from the mid-west. Other rail lines were encouraged to build feeder lines.

Each was required to build only 50 miles (80 km) in the first year; after that, only 50 miles (80 km) more were required each year. Each railroad received $16,000 per mile ($9,940/km) built over an easy grade, $32,000 per mile ($19,880/km) in the high plains, and $48,000 per mile ($29,830/km) in the mountains. This payment was in the form of government bonds that the companies could resell. To allow the railroads to raise additional money Congress provided additional assistance to the railroad companies in the form of land grants of federal lands. They were granted right-of-ways of 400 feet (100 m) plus 10 square miles (26 km2) of land (ten sections) adjacent to the track for every mile of track built. To avoid a railroad monopoly on good land, the land was not given away in a continuous swath but in a "checkerboard" pattern leaving federal land in between that could be purchased from the government. The land grant railroads, receiving millions of acres of public land, sold bonds based on the value of the lands, sold the land to settlers, used the money to build their railroads, and contributed to a rapid settlement of the West.[9] The total area of the land grants to the Union Pacific and Central Pacific was even larger than the area of the state of Texas: federal government land grants totaled about 5,261,000,000 square meters and state government land grants totaled about 1,983,000,000 square meters.[10] The race was on to see which railroad company could build the longest section of track and receive the most land and government bonds.

The bonds and land grants have been frequently characterised as a government subsidy. However, historian Stephen Ambrose has argued against this since the companies repaid both the capital and interest.[11] He also argues that although the companies were able to sell the land grants in the Sacramento Valley and Nebraska at "a good price", most of the land in Wyoming, Utah and Nevada was "virtually worthless".[12]

Eastern Developments

Eastern Terminus

Lincoln Memorial where Abraham Lincoln is said to have selected Council Bluffs as the eastern terminus after visiting this site in 1859 under the employ of Thomas C. Durant.

Once it was decided that the railroad would follow the central route rather than the southern route, there was little question that the western terminus would be Sacramento. However, there was considerable intrigue over the eastern terminus.

The three prime candidates for the eastern terminus on 250 miles (400 km) of Missouri River between Kansas City and Omaha were:

The principal advantages of Council Bluffs/Omaha were that it was well north of the Civil War fighting taking place in Missouri, was the shortest route to South Pass break in the Rockies in Wyoming, and would follow a fertile river that would encourage settlement. Missouri's advantages included that it had the only railroad to actually reach the Missouri River on its western border (H&SJ), was more centrally located for lines coming up from Texas and could offer a route servicing Denver, Colorado, the biggest city in the Great American Desert. In 1862 the closest rail lines to Omaha/Council Bluffs were 150 miles (240 km) away and would take five years to reach Omaha.

Thomas C. Durant who was building the cross-Iowa railroad (the M&M) was literally banking that the Omaha route would be chosen and began buying up land in Nebraska.

In 1857, Durant hired private citizen Abraham Lincoln to represent the M&M in litigation brought by steamboat operators to dismantle Government Bridge, the first bridge across the Mississippi River. The bridge prevented steamboats from passing underneath and was an obstruction of a public waterway. In August 1859 Lincoln at the behest of M&M attorney Norman Judd traveled to Council Bluffs to inspect M&M facilities that were to be used to secure a $3,000 loan Lincoln was to hold. On the visit Lincoln rode the SJ&H railroad and visited railroad locations in Missouri and Kansas before going to Council Bluffs. During the visit Lincoln was to spend 2 hours with M&M engineer Grenville M. Dodge at the Pacific House Hotel discussing the merits of starting the railroad in Council Bluffs and was to visit Cemetery Hill there to look over the proposed route.[13]

Lincoln's ties to Council Bluffs were furthered strengthened by the fact that he had won the 1860 Republican nomination on the third ballot when the Iowa delegation switched its vote to him.[14] In contrast, Lincoln was to get only 10 percent of the Missouri vote in the 1860 Presidential Election.

While the Pacific Railroad Act was to award the eastern contract to the newly formed Union Pacific, it was left up to then President Lincoln to formally choose the location for the railroad to start and Lincoln in 1862 was to follow the advice of his former client.

The H&SJ and LP&W were not totally shut out of the contract though. The H&SJ was to be allowed to build a feeder line from Atchison, Kansas, while the LP&W could build a feeder line out of Kansas City, Kansas. The feeder lines were supposed to meet the Union Pacific main line somewhere around the 100th meridian west in central Nebraska and the feeder lines were to get the same land grant incentives as the Union Pacific.

Thomas Durant and the Union Pacific

Thomas Clark Durant
Main articles: Thomas C. Durant and Union Pacific Railroad

In contrast to the relatively straightforward arrangements for the Central Pacific, the Union Pacific which was to ultimately build nearly 2/3 of the track was to be mired in controversy and scandals while its controlling partner Thomas C. Durant got rich as he took advantage of lax or non-existent government oversight during the Civil War.

The enabling legislation for the Union Pacific required that no partner was to own more than 10 percent of the stock. However, the Union Pacific had problems selling its stock. Durant enticed investors with a scheme where he would put up the money for the stock if they would just put their names on it. Then Durant wound up taking the stock from the investors and was to end up controlling about half the stock of the railroad.

The initial construction of railroad went over land that Durant owned around Omaha. Being paid by the mile, the railroad built oxbows of extraneous track never venturing further than 40 miles (64 km) from Omaha in the railroad's first 2½ years.

Durant manipulated market prices on his stocks by spreading rumours about which railroads were to be connected to the Union Pacific. First he ran up the stock of his M&M Railroad while secretly buying stock in the depressed Cedar Rapids and Missouri Railroad (CR&M), then running up CR&M stock with new plans to connect the Union Pacific to it at which point he began buying back the M&M stock at depressed prices. The gambit is estimated to have raised $5 million for his cohorts and him.[15]

Durant was to keep a low public profile in his machinations as he was only a vice president. He was to install a series of respected men such as John Adams Dix as president of the railroad.

On July 4, 1865, the Union Pacific had not gone further than 40 miles (64 km) from Omaha—even as the Central Pacific had been working away for 2½ years. With the end of the Civil War and increased government supervision in the offing, Durant hired his former M&M engineer Grenville M. Dodge to build the railroad and the Union Pacific began a mad dash.


The Jupiter, which carried Leland Stanford (one of the "Big Four" owners of the Central Pacific) and other railway officials to the Golden Spike Ceremony.

Because of the nature of the way money was given to the companies building the railroad, they were sometimes known to sabotage each others railroads to claim that land as their own.[16] When they first came close to meeting, they changed paths to be nearly parallel, so that each company could claim subsidies from the government over the same plot of land.[citation needed] Fed up with the fighting, Congress eventually declared where and when the railways should meet.[16] Survey teams closely followed by work crews from each railroad passed each other, eager to lay as much track as possible. The leading Central Pacific road crew set a record by laying 10 mi (16 km) of track in a single day, commemorating the event with a signpost beside the track for passing trains to see.


The majority of the Union Pacific track was built by Irish laborers[17], and veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies. Brigham Young, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wished to see the railroad support emigration and the population centers in Ogden and Salt Lake City, Utah. As the track approached Utah Territory, he sought a labor contract with the Union Pacific. Under this completed contract, workgangs made up almost entirely of Mormons built much of the Union Pacific track in the Utah territory including the difficult section requiring extensive blasting and tunneling through the Weber River canyon. (Allen and Leonard, pp. 328–329)

Chinese railroad workers greet a train on a snowy day.

The Central Pacific's grade was constructed primarily by many thousands of emigrant workers from China who were commonly referred to at the time as "Celestials" and China as the "Celestial Kingdom." Even though at first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work, after the first few days on which Chinese were on the line, the decision was made to hire as many as could be found in California (where most were independent gold miners or in service industries such as laundries and kitchens). Many more were imported from China. Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, but the workers arriving directly from China received much less. Eventually, they went on strike and gained a small increase in salary.

Most of the work consisted of the laying of the rails. The track laying was divided up into various parts: one gang laid rails on the ties, drove the spikes, and bolted the splice bars; at the same time, another gang distributed telegraph poles and wire along the grade, while the cooks prepared dinner and the clerks busied themselves with accounts, records, using telegraph wire to tap for more materials and supplies.[18] Almost all of the track work was done manually, using shovels, picks, axes, black powder, two-wheeled dump carts, wheelbarrows, ropes, mules, and horses,[19] while supply trains carried all the necessary material for the construction, which consisted of “ties, rails, spikes, bolts, telegraph poles, wire, etc.”[18]

In addition to track laying (which typically employed approximately 25% of the labor force), the operation also required the efforts of hundreds of tunnelers, explosive experts, bridge builders, blacksmiths, carpenters, engineers, masons, surveyors, teamsters, telegraphers, and even cooks, to name just a few of the trades involved in construction of the railroad.

Upon the completion of their work on the CPRR's portion of the Pacific Railroad, many Chinese workers moved on to other railroad construction jobs including with the Central Pacific. Of those that left the company's employ, some returned with their savings to their families in Canton while others sent to China for wives and settled in various western communities as miners, laundrymen, and restaurateurs. The majority who remained in the United States, however, returned to and settled in the San Francisco Bay area and elsewhere along the Pacific coast.[20]

Central Pacific

On January 8, 1863, Governor Leland Stanford ceremoniously broke ground in Sacramento, California, to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Central Pacific made great progress along the Sacramento Valley. However construction was slowed, first by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, then by the mountains themselves and most importantly by winter snowstorms. Consequently, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire emigrant laborers (many of whom were Chinese). Emigrants seemed to be more willing to tolerate the horrible conditions, and progress continued. The increasing necessity for tunnelling then began to slow progress of the line yet again.

Tunnels were constructed by blasting the granite slopes using black powder (nitroglycerin was only used to construct Summit Tunnel a.k.a. Tunnel No. 6) to bypass the difficulties of the snow. To carve a tunnel, one worker holds a rock drill on granite, then two other workers swing eighteen-pound sledgehammers to chisel a hole. Much of the tunnel construction was followed by deaths from snow slides and avalanches.[21]

The Chinese built 15 tunnels for Central Pacific, the longest of which, the summit tunnel, reached 1659 feet. They were about 32 feet high, 16 feet wide.[22] Derricks at first were used to remove loose rocks then steam hoisting machine replaced them to increase construction progress. The average daily progress was only 0.85 feet a day, which was very slow,[22] or 1.18 feet daily according to historian George Kraus.[23] J. O. Wilder, a Central Pacific-Southern Pacific employee, commented that “The Chinese were as steady, hard-working a set of men as could be found. With the exception of a few whites at the west end of Tunnel No. 6, the laboring force was entirely composed of Chinamen with white foremen. A single Irish foreman with a gang of 30 to 40 Chinese men generally constituted the force at work at each end of a tunnel; of these, 12 to 15 worked on the heading, and the rest on the bottom removing material. When a gang was small or the men needed elsewhere, the bottoms were worked with fewer men or stopped so as to keep the headings going.”[23] The laborers usually worked three shifts of 8 hours each per day, while the foremen worked in two shifts of 12 hours each, managing the laborers.[24]

Construction began again in earnest. Horace Hamilton Minkler, track foreman for the Central Pacific, laid the last rail and tie before the Golden Spike was driven.[25]

Union Pacific

Grenville M. Dodge wearing a major general's uniform

The major investor in the Union Pacific was Thomas Clark Durant,[26] who had made his stake money by smuggling Confederate cotton with the aid of Grenville M. Dodge. Durant chose routes that would favor places where he held land, and he announced connections to other lines at times that suited his share dealings. He paid an associate to submit the construction bid to another company he controlled, Crédit Mobilier, manipulating the finances and government subsidies and making himself another fortune. Durant hired Dodge as chief engineer and Jack Casement as construction boss.

In the East, the progress started in Omaha, Nebraska, by the Union Pacific Railroad proceeded very quickly because of the open terrain of the Great Plains. This changed, however, as the work entered Indian-held lands. The Native Americans saw the addition of the railroad as a violation of their treaties with the United States. War parties began to raid the moving labor camps that followed the progress of the line. Union Pacific responded by increasing security and hiring marksmen to kill American Bison, which were both a physical threat to trains and the primary food source for many of the Plains Indians. The Native Americans then began killing laborers when they realized that the so-called "Iron Horse" threatened their existence. Security measures were further strengthened, and progress on the railroad continued.

The Last Spike

Golden spike that was donated by the governor of Arizona Territory. It is one of four ceremonial spikes driven at the completion (but is not the final golden spike).
The Last Spike by Thomas Hill (1881)

Six years after the groundbreaking, laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was here on May 10, 1869, that Stanford drove the The Last Spike (or golden spike) which is now on display at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, that joined the rails of the transcontinental railroad. In perhaps the world's first live mass-media event, the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph line so that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide—the hammer strokes were missed, so the clicks were sent by the telegraph operator. As soon as the ceremonial spike had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a message was transmitted to both the East Coast and West Coast that simply read, "DONE." The country erupted in celebration upon receipt of this message. Travel from coast to coast was reduced from six months or more to just one week.


Railroad developments

Display ads for the CPRR and UPRR the week the rails were joined on May 19, 1869
UPRR & CPRR "Great American Over-Land Route" Timetable cover 1881

When the golden spike was driven, the rail network was not yet connected to the Atlantic or Pacific, but merely connected Omaha and Sacramento. In November 1869 the Central Pacific finally connected Sacramento to San Francisco Bay at Oakland, California.

The Central Pacific soon learned that it would have trouble maintaining an open track in winter across the Sierras. At first they tried plowing the road with special snowplows mounted on their steam engines. When this was found only partially successful an extensive process of building snow sheds over some of the track to protect it from deep snows and avalanches was instituted. This eventually kept the tracks free for all except a few days of the year.[27]

Both railroads soon instituted extensive upgrade projects to build better bridges, viaducts, dugways, heavier duty rails, stronger ties, better road beds etc. The original track had often been laid as fast as possible with only secondary attention to maintenance and longevity. Getting the subsidies was initially the primary incentive; upgrades of all kinds were routinely required in the coming years.

The Union Pacific would not connect Omaha to Council Bluffs until completing the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge in 1873.

With the completion of the Civil War, the competing railroads coming from Missouri took advantage of their initial strategic advantage for a building boom. The H&SJ finished the Hannibal Bridge which was the first bridge to cross the Missouri River in July 1869 in Kansas City. This in turn connected to Kansas Pacific trains going from Kansas City to Denver which had built the Denver Pacific Railway connecting to the Union Pacific. In August 1870 the Kansas Pacific laid the last spike connecting to the Denver Pacific line at Strasburg, Colorado and the first true Atlantic to Pacific United States railroad was completed.

Kansas City's head start in connecting to a true transcontinental railroad was to contribute to it rather than Omaha being the dominant rail center west of Chicago.

The Kansas Pacific became part of the Union Pacific in 1880.

On June 4, 1876, an express train called the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco via the First Transcontinental Railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left from New York City. Only ten years before the same journey would have taken months over land or weeks on ship.

The Central Pacific was absorbed by the Southern Pacific in 1885. The Union Pacific initially took over the Southern Pacific in 1901 but was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to divest it because of monopoly concerns. The Union Pacific completed the take-over of the Southern Pacific in 1996.

Having been bypassed with the completion of the Lucin Cutoff in 1904, the Promontory Summit rails were pulled up in 1942 to be recycled for the World War II effort. This process began with a ceremonial "undriving" at the golden spike location.[28] In 1957, Congress authorized the Golden Spike National Historic Site. On May 10, 2006, on the anniversary of the driving of the spike, Utah announced that its state quarter design would be a representation of the driving of the spike.

Credit Mobilier

Oakes Ames

Despite the transcontinental success and millions in government subsidies, the Union Pacific faced bankruptcy less than three years after the golden spike as details surfaced about overcharges Credit Mobilier had billed Union Pacific for the formal building of the railroad. The scandal hit epic proportions in the United States presidential election, 1872 which saw the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant and became the biggest scandal of the Gilded Age. It would not be resolved until the congressman who was supposed to have reined in its excesses but instead wound up profiting from it was dead.

Durant had initially come up with the scheme to have Credit Mobilier subcontract to do the actual track work. Durant gained control of the company after buying out employee Herbert Hoxie for $10,000. Under Durant's guidance the company was charging Union Pacific often twice or more the customary cost for track work (thus in effect paying himself to build the railroad). The process was to mire down Union Pacific work.

Lincoln asked Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames, who was on the railroad committee, to clean things up and get the railroad moving. Ames got his brother Oliver Ames, Jr. named president of the Union Pacific and Ames himself became president of Credit Mobiler.[29]

Ames in turn gave stock options to other politicians while at the same time continuing the lucrative overcharges. The scandal was to implicate Vice President Schuyler Colfax (who was cleared) and future President James Garfield among others.

The scandal broke in 1872 when the New York Sun published correspondence between Henry S. McComb and Ames detailing the scheme. In the ensuing Congressional investigation, it was recommended that Ames be expelled from Congress but this was reduced to a censure and Ames died within three months.

Durant was to leave the Union Pacific and a new rail baron Jay Gould was to become the dominant stockholder. As a result of the Panic of 1873 Jay Gould was able to pick up bargains, among them the control of the Union Pacific Railroad and Western Union also fell under his control.[30]

Visible remains

Visible remains of the historic line are still easily located—hundreds of miles are still in service today, especially through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and canyons in Utah and Wyoming. While the original rail has long since been replaced because of age and wear, and the roadbed upgraded and repaired, the lines generally run on top of the original, handmade grade. Vista points on Interstate 80 through California's Truckee Canyon provide a panoramic view of many miles of the original Central Pacific line and of the snow sheds which make winter train travel safe and practical.

In areas where the original line has been bypassed and abandoned, primarily in Utah, the road grade is still obvious, as are numerous cuts and fills, especially the Big Fill a few miles east of Promontory. The sweeping curve which connected to the east end of the Big Fill now passes a Thiokol rocket research and development facility.

Current passenger service

Amtrak's California Zephyr, a daily passenger service from Emeryville, California (San Francisco Bay Area) to Chicago, uses the First Transcontinental Railroad from Sacramento to central Nevada. Because this rail line currently operates in a directional running setup across most of Nevada, the California Zephyr will switch to the Central Corridor at either Winnemucca or Wells.[31]

Popular culture

The joining together of the Union Pacific line with the Central Pacific line in May 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, was one of the major inspirations for French writer Jules Verne's book entitled Around the World in Eighty Days, which was published in the year 1873.[32]

Poster for the film Union Pacific.

The feat is depicted in various movies, including the 1939 film Union Pacific, starring Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, which depicts the fictional Central Pacific investor Asa Barrows obstructing attempts by the Union Pacific from reaching Ogden, Utah.

While not exactly accurate, John Ford's 1924 silent movie The Iron Horse captures the fervent nationalism that drove public support for the project. Among the cooks serving the film's cast and crew between shots were some of the Chinese laborers who actually worked on the Central Pacific section of the railroad.

The 1962 film How the West Was Won has a whole segment devoted to the construction; one of the movie's most famous scenes, filmed in Cinerama, is of a buffalo stampede over the railroad.

Kristiana Gregory's book The Great Railroad Race (part of the "Dear America" series) is written as a diary by Libby West, who chronicles the end of the building of the railroad and the excitement which engulfed the country at the time.

In the 1999 Will Smith film, Wild Wild West, the joining ceremony is the setting of an assassination attempt on then U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant by the film's antagonist Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless.

The building of the railway is covered by the 2004 BBC documentary series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World in episode 6, "The Line".

The series American Experience also documents the railway in the episode titled "Transcontinental Railroad".

The main character in The Claim (2000) is a surveyor for the Central Pacific Railroad, and the film is partially about the effort of a frontier mayor to have the railroad routed through his town.

The popular British Television show Doctor Who featured the Transcontinental Rail road in a BBC audio book entitled The Runaway Train, read by Matt Smith and written for audio by Oli Smith.

The children's book Ten Mile Day by Mary Ann Fraser tells the story of the final, record setting push by the Central Pacific in which they set a record by laying 10 miles (16 km) of track in a single day on April 28, 1869 to settle a $10,000 bet.

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad provides the setting for the AMC television series Hell on Wheels. Thomas Durant is a regular character in the series and is portrayed by actor Colm Meaney.

See also


  1. ^ Executive Order of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, Fixing the Point of Commencement of the Pacific Railroad at Council Bluffs, Iowa. dated March 7, 1864. (38th Congress, 1st Session SENATE Ex. Doc. No. 27)
  2. ^ Cooper, Bruce C., "Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad 1865–1881" (2005), Polyglot Press, Philadelphia ISBN 1-4115-9993-4. p. 11
  3. ^ Cooper, Bruce Clement(Ed), The Classic Western American Railroad Routes. New York: Chartwell Books(US) / Bassingbourn: Worth Press (UK); 2010. ISBN 9780785825739; ISBN 0785825738; BINC: 3099794. pp 44–45
  4. ^ "Union Pacific Map". Central Pacific Railroad Museum. Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  5. ^ "Central Pacific Railroad Map". Central Pacific Railroad Museum. Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  6. ^ F.V. Hayden and Daniel M. Davis. "Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery, Photographic Collection". Utah State University Special Collections and Archives. Retrieved 2007-01-06. 
  7. ^ PBS American Experience - Transcontinental Railroad - Whitney Biography
  8. ^ In Memoriam, Theodore D. Judah, Died November 2, 1863
  9. ^ Map of Land Grants to Railroads [1] accessed Jan 29, 2009
  10. ^ The Silent Spikes: Chinese Laborers and the Construction of North American Railroads, comp. and ed. Huang Annian, trans. Zhang Juguo (n.p.: China Intercontinental Press, 2006), p. 36.
  11. ^ Ambrose, Stephen, 2000, p. 377
  12. ^ Ambrose, Stephen, 2000, p. 376
  13. ^ - Abraham Lincoln and Iowa
  14. ^ PBS American Experience - Transcontinental Railroad - Transcript
  15. ^ PBS American Experience - Transcontinental Railroad - Durant Biography
  16. ^ a b Perkins, J. R. (2003). "CENTRAL PACIFIC–UNION PACIFIC RACE". Retrieved 2010-04-24. 
  17. ^ Collins, R.M. (2010). Irish Gandy Dancer: A tale of building the Transcontinental Railroad. Seattle: Create Space. pp. 198. ISBN 978-1452826318. 
  18. ^ a b Alta California (San Francisco), November 9, 1868.
  19. ^ Kraus, High Road to Promontory, p. 110.; Robert West Howard, The Great Iron Trail: The Story of the First Transcontinental Railroad (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962), p. 231.
  20. ^ Kraus, George Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific Utah Historical Quarterly, Winter 1969, Volume 37, Number 1, pp 41-57
  21. ^ Ambrose, Nothing Like It in the World, p. 201 and p. 160
  22. ^ a b Tzu-Kuei, "Chinese Workers and the First Transcontinental Railroad of the United States of America", p. 128.
  23. ^ a b Kraus, "Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific," p. 49.
  24. ^ John R. Gillis, "TUNNELS OF THE PACIFIC RAILROAD." Van Nostrand's Eclectic Engineering Magazine, January 5, 1870, p. 418-423,
  25. ^ CPRR Discussion Group
  26. ^ "People & Events: Thomas Clark Durant (1820–1885)". American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad. PBS. 2003. Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  27. ^ Central Pacific snow sheds [2] accessed January 28, 2009
  28. ^ United States National Park Service (2002-09-28). "Promontory After May 10, 1869". Retrieved 2007-05-10. 
  29. ^ People & Events: Oakes Ames (1804–1873) - American Experience Transcontinental Railroad
  30. ^ Panic on Wall Street: A History of America's Financial Disasters, p.193, Robert Sobel, Beard Books, 1999, ISBN 9781893122468
  31. ^ "Eureka County, Yucca Mountain Existing Transportation Corridor Study". Eureka County – Yucca Mountain Project. 2005. Retrieved 2010-05-08. 
  32. ^ William Butcher (translation and introduction). Around the World in Eighty Days, Oxford Worlds Classics, 1995, Introduction.


External links

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