The Transcontinental Railroad
- May 10, 1869 - Promontory Summit, Utah Territory
- A Golden Spike was driven to hold in place the last section of rail
completing the first transcontinental railroad. This project, long the
dream of so many politicians, business men, industrialists, miners, and
pioneers had finally begun with the ground-breaking of the Central
Pacific Railroad in Sacramento, on January 8, 1863. A little over six
years later, it was possible to travel the 2000 miles from the
Missouri River to the shores of the Pacific in just six days - a journey
that had previously required four to six months. Just five days after
the driving of the Golden Spike, tickets went on sale for travel
from Omaha to Sacramento. Depending upon the class of service that the
traveler desired, the ticket price varied from $40 to $111.
- A transcontinental railroad had been discussed as early as the 1830's,
but the need for feasibility studies, route surveys, debate over the
routes, politics, and other matters delayed the start of this vital
project. Finally, in July of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the
Pacific Railroad Act which granted a charter to two companies, The
Central Pacific and Union Pacific, to build rail and telegraph lines
between Omaha and the West Coast. The act provided for loans to the two
companies as well as the awarding of generous land grants either side of
- Each company utilized thousands of workers in the project, the Union
Pacific employed quite a number of Irish immigrants, while the Central
Pacific used up to 30,000 Chinese workers ('coolies' - from the Chinese
words for 'rent' and 'muscle'), on their portion of the project.
- Numerous obstacles had to be overcome to build the railroad; mountain
ranges, river gorges, miles of seemingly endless prairies, and the
tribes of the Plains Indians which, rightly so, saw the coming of the
'Iron Horse' as the beginning of the end of their way of life.
- Despite the obstacles, progress on the railway was steady over the six
years of construction. One construction record was set that still
stands today. On April 28, 1869, crews of the Central Pacific laid 10
miles of rail in one day, winning a bet between the two companies.
- The potential rewards were so high that neither company wanted to stop
building railway. Survey and grading crews from both companies actually
passed each other in northern Utah Territory. A government commission
was formed to force the two competitors into arbitration to decide upon
a terminus point. Thus Promontory Summit, a point equi-distant between
the two 'ends-of-track', as of April 9, was chosen as the meeting point.
- The Promontory Summit route was relegated to only localized traffic in
1904 when the 'Lucin Cut Off' was completed across the Great Salt Lake -
saving 45 miles, and the climb through the Promontory Pass. In 1938,
the Promontory route was completely abandoned, with much of the actual
railway being dismantled in 1942 for use in the war effort.
- Suggested Reading:
- Ambrose, Stephen E.
- Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1865-1869
- Combs, Barry B.
- Westward to Promontory: Building the Union Pacific Across the Plains and Mountains
- Galloway, John Debo
- The First Transcontinental Railroad: Central Pacific - Union Pacific
- Griswold, Wesley S.
- A Work of Giants
- Klein, Maury
- Union Pacific - 2 Volume Set
- Kraus, George
- High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific across the High Sierra
- Mayer, Lynne Rhodes; Vose, Kenneth E.
- Makin' Tracks: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad in the Pictures and Words of the Men Who Were There