The Transcontinental Railroad

The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (sometimes referred to as the "Pacific Railroad" although two different railroads built the line) in 1869 marked a major milestone in the history of the United States. For the first time since trains began rolling during the 1820s the country was unified from coast to coast with an efficient and fast mode of transportation. The Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads began their respective projects during the early 1860s once it was approved and incredibly required fewer than 10 years to complete. The climax occurred with the Golden Spike Ceremony in Utah were both companies met amid much publicity and fanfare. Today, the site can still be visited where the ceremony occurred although the original right-of-way is no longer in use. 

It may be surprising to know the Transcontinental Railroad's history actually began several years before hostilities broke out between the North and South. According to historian John P. Hankey's excellent article, "The Railroad War: How The Iron Road Changed The American Civil War" featured in the March, 2011 issue of Trains Magazine, beginning in 1854-1855 Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who later became president of the Confederate States of America) initiated the task of surveying western routes to the Pacific Coast. There were three, primary options put forth; a northern, central, and southern routing. However, due to the ongoing issue of slavery no individual route could be agreed upon. 

As a result the entire project went dormant as neither side was willing to capitulate. Tensions between the northern and southern states reached a crescendo when Abraham Lincoln was elected president and on December 20, 1860 South Carolina became the first to secede. It was followed soon-after by several others and the Civil War broke out during 1861. With the country in turmoil the North now had the freedom to chose whichever transcontinental route it wished and settled on the central option. This line would begin construction from Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska and head west. The railroad would be known as Union Pacific, built to standard gauge, and born directly as a result of the Pacific Railroad Act's passage, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 1, 1862. To see a complete transcript of this act please click here

The other important system in this endeavor was the Central Pacific, a railroad originally organized by Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford, and Charles Crocker (the so-called "Big Four") on June 28, 1861. It was directed to "construct a railroad and telegraph line from the Pacific coast, at or near San Francisco, or the navigable waters of the Sacramento River, to the eastern boundary of California." With the passage of the Pacific Railroad Act the CP adopted the agreement on October 7th and formally accepted it through the Department of the Interior on December 24th. With the legal work out of the way the prospect and daunting challenge of actually building a railroad through the vast, open country of the American West lay ahead. 

To do this first required land, upon which the railroads would lay their right-of-way. This process began in 1850 when Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and William R. King of Alabama achieved their proposed land-grant act aiding the process of laying new railroad west of the Mississippi River. According to John Stover's book, "The Routledge Historical Atlas Of The American Railroads," between 1850 and 1871 the U.S. government offered railroads 170 million acres of land to construct 80 different projects. Over this time about 131 million acres were actually used, which would constitute 18,738 miles of new lines put into operation. One of the first projects completed using land grants was the Illinois Central's north-south main line opened between Chicago and Cairo, Illinois in 1856 (453 miles). Its completed route would eventually reach the Gulf Coast at New Orleans in 1873. 

For the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, under the new legislation the railroads received ten alternate sections of federal land for each mile of track laid. During 1864 this number increased to twenty acres. Additionally, there was the incentive of government loans that varied from $16,000 to $48,000 per mile depending on the ruggedness of the topography. While Union Pacific broke ground from Omaha in 1863 the railroad was unable to see much work completed until after the Civil War was over. In contrast, Central Pacific began actual construction during October of 1863 (groundbreaking had taken place earlier that January) from Sacramento and by January 31, 1865 had reached New Castle, a distance of 31 miles. By September 4th that same year rails were finished to Colfax, 56 miles. Despite CP's head start it eventually had to deal with the nearly impenetrable Sierra Nevada Mountain Range of eastern California and western Nevada. 

As work slowed on the CP, Union Pacific raced westward thanks to few geographical obstacles along the vast open plains of the West. By 1868 UP had more than 450 miles opened while CP had only reached the California border, 138 miles, by mid-November of 1867. According to federal law the two railroads were given a completion deadline of July 1, 1874. Incredibly, they bested that requirement by more than five years. On May 10, 1869 the two roads met at a location known as Promontory Summit, Utah. This spot was on the northern region of the Great Salt Lake and roughly 50 miles west of Ogden. There was a prominent and widely publicized event held to commemorate the Transcontinental Railroad's completion with The Last Spike Ceremony (also sometimes referred to as The Golden Spike Ceremony) featuring a golden spike driven by Leland Stanford. 

This remains the most famous railroad event in American history. Arguably the industry's most famous image was also taken at the event when Central Pacific 4-4-0 #60, "The Jupiter," and Union Pacific 4-4-0 #119 were photographed coupler to coupler with many dignitaries and patrons surrounding the locomotives. Much of the hard labor to complete each railroad was performed by immigrants; for Union Pacific this came mostly by those of Irish descent, along with Civil War veterans, while the Central Pacific employed tens of thousands of Chinese workers. The economic prosperity achieved through the Transcontinental Railroad opening the West was certainly unparalleled in our country's great history although the project was not without its scandals. 

The most famous of these was the Credit Mobilier incident. The idea behind this construction company was partially the work of Dr. Thomas C. Durant, Union Pacific's first vice president who headed the railroad's construction across the West. He later former Credit Mobilier in 1864 and used it to grossly overcharge UP for contract work, nearly driving the railroad into bankruptcy. The extra profits were then simply pocketed by Durant and his partners. The issue wasn't resolved until 1872 although little punishment was ever handed down to those involved in the corruption. Today, you can see two of the original Golden Spikes (of the six used at the event); the original is housed at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University and another is on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. 

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