The Transcontinental Railroad - An Overview 

The idea of a transcontinental railroad linking the east and the west coast of North American was suggested as early as the 1830s, but the real planning for the construction did not begin until the 1850s.  Theodore Judah, a railroad surveyor form Connecticut, pushed Congress for the construction of the railroad.  With the financial support of entrepreneurs Collis P. Hunnington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker, Judah was able to secure passage of the Pacific Railway Act of 1862.  This bill, signed by President and railroad enthusiast Abraham Lincoln, provided for the construction of a transcontinental railroad by two companies, each being granted ownership of the land they used in their construction.  The Union Pacific would start form the east, while the Central Pacific would begin building in the west.  Both companies would meet somewhere between Omaha and California, approximately 1,700 miles apart.

            Construction began in 1863, and the two companies raced to see who could lay more track (and gain greater wealth in doing so).  The construction of the railroad was extremely challenging.  The Central Pacific ran into money problems early, not being able to afford to build the first 40 miles of the track.  In addition, all of the necessary materials except wood had to be shipped around South America, delaying construction.  Labor was hard to find, until Chinese immigrants who were eager for employment took the job. Their knowledge of explosives proved to be handy when the Sierra Nevada mountains were encountered, which slowed down the rail production to eight inches a day.

            The Union Pacific also faced challenges.  There was a lack of timber on the path of their track, so lumber had to be brought up the Mississippi River.  Native Americans attacked the settlements and cattle growing around the railroad, and workers lived in fear of assaults from Indians.  The weather took its toll as well, with sever cold in the winter and oppressive summer heat challenging the workers. Construction was very slow at first, with less than one mile of track being laid each day.  The workforce was made up of mostly immigrant labor from Europe (especially Ireland) and Civil war veterans from the north and South. 

            In 1869, the two companies were actually constructing parallel to each other when federal engineers decided that Promontory Summit, Utah would be the location where the two lines met.  The celebratory final spikes were driven into the ground on May 10, and a telegraph message was sent to both coasts simply stating, “Done.”  Celebrations were held in Washington D.C., New York City, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco.  The nation had been linked by rail.

Transcontinental RR The

"May God continue the unity of our Country, as the Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world."

The ceremony of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869

Image from National Archives and Records Administration

The Golden Spike and inscription - one of five spikes driven in on May 10, 1869

Image from Stanford University 

The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad

As railroad financier George Francis Train stated, "The great Pacific Railway is commenced... Immigration will soon pour into these valleys. Ten millions of emigrants will settle in this golden land in twenty years... This is the grandest enterprise under God!" (The West) The Transcontinental Railroad changed America like no development before it.  The first transcontinental railroad was followed by several others, as well as other connections creating a huge transportation network throughout the West.  The time of travel between New York and San Francisco was changed from three months by boat to eight days by rail car.  Americans moved west for free land, and the railroads carried cattle east to feed the millions in the cities. Buffalo hunters worked for railroad companies, changing the lives and cultures of Native Americans forever.   Settlement developed along the railroad, leading to the population and organization of western territories and their eventual statehood.  The development of the transcontinental railroad shaped the American West. 

The Legacy of the Transcontinental Railroad

In assessing the legacy of the Transcontinental Railroad, its overall impact on the American West is monumental. Author T.H. Watkins notes that "Once the rails were joined at Promontory, ... we began for the first time, truly, to think of ourselves as a continental nation." (The West) From a century of retrospect, the construction of the railroad stands as a event that is, at its roots, American.  The mobilization of money, resources, and people, all spurred by the federal government, was remarkable for the time.  The fact that the riches of the companies were built on the backs of underpaid Americans and immigrants is also a telling point.  The construction could not have happened without the teamwork of politicians, businessmen, engineers, financiers,  immigrants, and average Americans. Regardless of the perspective of the worker or boss, the Transcontinental Railroad was an engineering feet like no other.  As historian Stephen Ambrose notes "Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery, building the first transcontinental railroad from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California, was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century." (Ambrose)

Additional Links of Interest

Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum - The CPRR Museum is full of information, stereograms, and  images dealing with the western leg of the Transcontinental Railroad.

"The Grandest Enterprise Under God" - This site from PBS' "New Perspectives on the West" website contains excellent information and contemporary views on the creation and importance of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Golden Spike National Historic Site - This site has present-day pictures of the Promontory Point area and the National Historic Site.

Union Pacific Railroad--An Overview - The Union Pacific site provides a historical overview of the eastern company involved in the railroad's construction.  

Union Pacific Railroad Map - One of the better contemporary maps of the time, from the Library of Congress.

Resources consulted

Ambrose, Stephen.  Nothing Like It In The World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869.  

Flanagan, Mike.  "The Iron Horse".  The Compete Idiot's Guide to the Old West.  New York:  Alpha Books, 1999.

PBS, Inc.  "The Iron Road".  The American Experience. 2001.    [Online] Available at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/iron/index.html

PBS, Inc.  "New Perspectives on the West". 1999.  [Online] Available at http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/

Images from:

Center for Visual Arts.  "The Last Spike".  Stanford University.  2000.  [Online] Available at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/ccva/spike.html

National Archives and Records Administration. "Congress and The American West - The Transcontinental Railroad". Treasures of Congress.  2001.  [Online] Available at http://www.nara.gov/exhall/treasuresofcongress/page_15.html#

PBS, Inc.  "New Perspectives on the West". 1999.  [Online] Available at http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/