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Transcontinental Railroad - Construction, Competition and Impact


In 1862, the Pacific Railroad Act chartered the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad Companies, tasking them with building a transcontinental railroad that would link the United States from east to west. Over the next seven years, the two companies would race toward each other from Sacramento, California on the one side to Omaha, Nebraska on the other, struggling against great risks before they met at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869.

Dreams of a Transcontinental Railroad

America’s first steam locomotive made its debut in 1830, and over the next two decades, railroad tracks linked many cities on the East Coast. By 1850, some 9,000 miles of track had been laid east of the Missouri River. During that same period, the first settlers began to move westward across the United States; this trend increased dramatically after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. The overland journey–across mountains, plains, rivers and deserts–was risky and difficult, and many westward migrants instead chose to travel by sea, taking the six-month route around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, or risking yellow fever and other diseases by crossing the Isthmus of Panama and traveling via ship to San Francisco.

In 1845, the New York entrepreneur Asa Whitney presented a resolution in Congress proposing the federal funding of a railroad that would stretch to the Pacific. Lobbying efforts over the next several years failed due to growing sectionalism in Congress, but the idea remained a potent one. In 1860, a young engineer named Theodore Judah identified the infamous Donner Pass in northern California (where a group of westward emigrants had become trapped in 1846) as an ideal location for constructing a railroad through the formidable Sierra Nevada mountains. By 1861, Judah had enlisted a group of investors in Sacramento to form the Central Pacific Railroad Company. He then headed to Washington, where he was able to convince congressional leaders as well as President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Pacific Railroad Act into law the following year.

Two Competing Companies: The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad

The Pacific Railroad Act stipulated that the Central Pacific Railroad Company would start building in Sacramento and continue east across the Sierra Nevada, while a second company, the Union Pacific Railroad, would build westward from the Missouri River, near the Iowa-Nebraska border. The two lines of track would meet in the middle (the bill did not designate an exact location) and each company would receive 6,400 acres of land (later doubled to 12,800) and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track built. From the beginning, then, the building of the transcontinental railroad was set up in terms of a competition between the two companies.

In the West, the Central Pacific would be dominated by the “Big Four”–Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington and Mark Hopkins. All were ambitious businessmen with no prior experience with railroads, engineering or construction. They borrowed heavily to finance the project, and exploited legal loopholes to get the most possible funds from the government for their planned track construction. Disillusioned with his partners, Judah planned to recruit new investors to buy them out, but he caught yellow fever while crossing the Isthmus of Panama on his way east and died in November 1863, soon after the Central Pacific had spiked its first rails to ties in Sacramento. Meanwhile, in Omaha, Dr. Thomas Durant had illegally achieved a controlling interest in the Union Pacific Railroad Company, giving him complete authority over the project. (Durant would also illegally set up a company called Crédit Mobilier, which guaranteed him and other investors risk-free profits from the railroad’s construction.) Though the Union Pacific celebrated its own launch in early December 1863, little would be completed until the end of the Civil War in 1865.

Danger Ahead: Building the Transcontinental Railroad

After General Grenville Dodge, a hero of the Union Army, took control as chief engineer, the Union Pacific finally began to move westward in May 1866. The company suffered bloody attacks on its workers by Native Americans–including members of the Sioux, Arapaho and Cheyenne tribes–who were understandably threatened by the progress of the white man and his “iron horse” across their native lands. Still, the Union Pacific moved relatively quickly across the plains, compared to the slow progress of their rival company through the Sierra. Ramshackle settlements popped up wherever the railroad went, turning into hotbeds of drinking, gambling, prostitution and violence and producing the enduring mythology of the “Wild West.”

In 1865, after struggling with retaining workers due to the difficulty of the labor, Charles Crocker (who was in charge of construction for the Central Pacific) began hiring Chinese laborers. By that time, some 50,000 Chinese immigrants were living on the West Coast, many having arrived during the Gold Rush. This was controversial at the time, as the Chinese were considered an inferior race due to pervasive racism. The Chinese laborers proved to be tireless workers, and Crocker hired more of them; some 14,000 were toiling under brutal working conditions in the Sierra Nevada by early 1867. (By contrast, the work force of the Union Pacific was mainly Irish immigrants and Civil War veterans.) To blast through the mountains, the Central Pacific built huge wooden trestles on the western slopes and used gunpowder and nitroglycerine to blast tunnels through the granite.

Driving Toward The Last Spike

By the summer of 1867, the Union Pacific was in Wyoming, having covered nearly four times as much ground as the Central Pacific. The Central Pacific broke through the mountains in late June, however, and the hard part was finally behind them. Both companies then headed towards Salt Lake City, cutting many corners (including building shoddy bridges or sections of track that would have to be rebuilt later) in their race to get ahead.

By early 1869, the companies were working only miles from each other, and in March the newly inaugurated President Ulysses S. Grant announced he would withhold federal funds until the two railroad companies agreed on a meeting point. They decided on Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake; some 690 track-miles from Sacramento and 1,086 from Omaha. On May 10, after several delays, a crowd of workers and dignitaries watched as the final spike was driven linking the Central Pacific and Union Pacific in the “Golden Spike Ceremony.”

The golden spike was made of 17.6-karat gold and was a gift of David Hewes, a San Francisco contractor and friend of “Big Four” member Leland Stanford. During the ceremony, Stanford took the first swing at the spike, but accidentally struck the tie instead. His attempt was followed by Union Pacific Thomas Durant’s. Durant swung and missed – likely because of a hangover he was suffering from the previous evening’s party in Ogden. A railroad worker ultimately drove the final spike at 12:47 p.m. on May 10, 1869. Telegraph cables immediately went out to President Grant and around the country with the news that the transcontinental railroad had been completed.

The golden spike was removed after the ceremony and replaced with traditional iron spikes. Three other ties—one of gold, one of silver and gold, and one of silver, were also presented at the ceremony. The original golden spike is now part of the collection of Stanford University, which was founded by Leland Stanford and his wife, Jane, in 1885 in memory of their only son.

Impact on The United States

The building of the transcontinental railroad opened up the American West to more rapid development. With the completion of the track, the travel time for making the 3,000-mile journey across the United States was cut from a matter of months to under a week. Connecting the two American coasts made the economic export of Western resources to Eastern markets easier than ever before. The railroad also facilitated westward expansion, escalating conflicts between Native American tribes and settlers who now had easier access to new territories.

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American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

On May 10, 1869, as the last spike was driven in the Utah desert, the blows were heard across the country. Telegraph wires wrapped around spike and sledgehammer transmitted the impact instantaneously east and west. In San Francisco and New York, wires had been connected to cannons facing outward across the ocean. When the signal from the spike came through, the cannons fired. The world was put on notice: the transcontinental railroad was completed and America was moving to the forefront of the world's stage.

The World Grew Smaller
One day later, the first transcontinental freight train rumbled out of California on its way to the east coast. It carried in its hold an emissary of the Asian markets: a shipment of Japanese teas. On May 15, though the road required hundreds of thousands of dollars in patchwork along its length, regular passenger service opened for business. Travelers could make the trip between San Francisco and New York in a week. No longer did passengers or cargo have to take the treacherous route across ocean and Panama that had killed railroad advocate Theodore Judah. The coasts were connected -- and the world as Americans knew it had grown smaller.

A Competing Canal
Railroad pioneer Asa Whitney had once dreamed an iron route would re-center the world toward America, making it a conduit of exchange between Asia and Europe. In this sense, his vision of the grand project remained unfulfilled. Just six months after the meeting at Promontory Summit, workers half the world away consummated their own monumental feat of engineering. Opened in November, 1869, Egypt's Suez Canal linked Asia and India to Europe by a single waterway, thus ensuring that exchange between the two regions would continue to circumvent American soil.

Surging Interstate Trade
However, the transformation achieved in intracontinental trade was substantial. Within ten years of its completion, the railroad shipped $50 million worth of freight coast to coast every year. Just as it opened the markets of the west coast and Asia to the east, it brought products of eastern industry to the growing populace beyond the Mississippi. The railroad ensured a production boom, as industry mined the vast resources of the middle and western continent for use in production. The railroad was America's first technology corridor.

Improved Public Discourse
As it encouraged the growth of American business, so too did it promote evolution of the nation's public discourse and intellectual life. Americans could travel across the length of the continent in a matter of days, and gaze upon their country in its entirety from the windows of their train cars. Conversations begun in the east ended in the west. Books written in San Francisco found homes on New York shelves just one week after their publication. The rails carried more than goods they provided a conduit for ideas, a pathway for discourse. With the completion of its great railroad, America gave birth to a transcontinental culture. And the route further engendered another profound change in the American mind. Here was manifest destiny wrought in iron here were two coasts united here was an interior open to settlement. Distances shrank, but identification to land and fellow American grew in inverse proportion.

A Disaster for Native Americans
Not everyone would benefit from that transformation. The transcontinental railroad was not the beginning of white settlers' battles with Native Americans. Nor was it the final nail in the coffin. But it was an irrevocable marker of encroaching white society, that unstoppable force which would force Indians onto reservations within decades. By 1890, even the Powder River Valley — the rich hunting ground so hard won by red Cloud and the Oglala Sioux — would be lost. New treaties scattered the Indians to reservations and opened the last great Native American holding to the settlers so steadily branching outward from the iron road. And the buffalo herds upon which Indians depended had been nearly depleted. They were easy prey to sport-hunters brought to the plains by the carload. More disastrously, the railroad introduced the herds to American industrial production, for which they became one more resource to be mined en masse. Millions of buffalo fell to indiscriminate slaughter, their hides shipped back along the rails to the markets of the East.

A Web of Rails
The transcontinental railroad did not long remain the sole venue of travel through America's center. Lines spiderwebbed outward from its branch points, conveying north and south the settlers coming west to consume millions of acres of land. By 1900 a number of routes ran parallel — the Northern Pacific and Southern Pacific among them — reaching westward from Mississippi to the Pacific just like the pioneering road.


Cultural Impact of Building the Transcontinental Railroad


Photograph of Benton, Wyoming, along the Union Pacific line 672 miles west of Omaha. Located 11 miles east of the present-day town of Rawlins, Benton only existed for three months from July to September, 1868. The tent city boasted a population of 3,000 people, and included 25 saloons, and five dance halls. Image courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History & Genealogy Digital Collections.

Numerous "hell on wheels" towns proliferated along the Union Pacific construction route from Omaha, Nebraska, to Promontory Summit, Utah. The towns were famous for their rapid growth and infamous for their lawlessness. Many of the Union Pacific railroad workers were young Civil War veterans, many were Irish immigrants, and almost all were single. The close attachment to the railroads meant a constant stream of transient residents and a mixing of ethnic groups under the banner of the Pacific Railroad. The towns were often temporary and made up of tents and cheap board structures that easily could be dismantled and moved to the next location. The towns offered everything from dentistry to hardware supplies to saloons and prostitutes. Although many Hell on Wheels towns disappeared as the railroad moved west, several communities, such as Laramie, Wyoming, endured and thrived in later years as railroad repair facilities and branch line terminals.


Artist dramatization of Union Pacific construction crews guarding the rail line against hostile Plains Indians. Survey crews and construction workers battled Sioux, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne tribes as the railroad advanced through Native American homelands and hunting grounds.

The Union Pacific's progress through the upper plains also put construction workers in the path of the Plains Indians. Civil War veteran General Grenville Dodge led the Army's forces against the Indians following the Civil War. Under his command, army troops battled Sioux, Arapahoe, and Cheyenne in Wyoming, Colorado, and western Nebraska. The November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, in which U.S. Army forces raided and killed 150 Cheyenne Indian villagers, and the Cheyenne retribution at Julesburg, Colorado, a few weeks later were commonplace along the future route of the railroad. Dodge became chief engineer of the Union Pacific in 1865 and the railroad's encroachment on Native American land led to continued conflicts during the construction of the westward line. By the and the eventual loss of Native American homelands as they were forced onto reservations.


Artist depiction of Union Pacific crews building grade and track through Nebraska. Note the Pawnee Indians guarding the construction crews.

Despite their confrontations with several Native American nations, the Union Pacific found an ally in the Pawnees, a tribe friendly to the U.S. government. Dodge recruited Pawnees to serve as a protection force against the Sioux as the railroad made its way through the plains. In return, railroad officials gave Pawnees free passage on their trains. In a macabre demonstration, Thomas Durant recruited Pawnees to stage a mock raid on trains as entertainment for dignitaries riding as part of the Union Pacific's 100 th meridian celebration in October 1866.

Mormon leaders, though supportive of the transcontinental railroad's advance through Utah, worried that the railroad would encroach on the character of their society. Indeed, sermons of the day focused on three changes, both good and bad, coming with the railroad: increased immigration of Mormons to Utah, economic help in the territory, and a proliferation of undesirable people moving to the Kingdom. To mitigate the unsavory elements of the railroad, Brigham Young established a School of the Prophets composed of church leaders to direct an economic plan of action. To show his support for the transcontinental railroad, Brigham Young purchased fives shares of stock of the Union Pacific Railroad valued at $1,000 per share.


Alfred A. Hart 1869 photograph of Central Pacific crews at Camp Victory, west of Promontory Summit, Utah. Charles Crocker named the camp "Victory" after his crews laid 10 miles of track in one day, winning a bet with Union Pacific officials.

In May 1868, Young signed a $2,125,000 million contract with the Union Pacific to build the railroad line from Echo to the shores of the Great Salt Lake, a distance of 150 miles. In the fall of the same year, Young contracted with Central Pacific officials to build the railroad from Humboldt Wells, Nevada, to Ogden, Utah, a distance of 200 miles.

Chinese immigration began with the discovery of gold in California in 1848. Competition for mining jobs, however, quickly turned to racial problems in the state. During the 1850s the unequal treatment of African-Americans extended to the Chinese. During the 1850s and early 1860s, the state legislature and numerous local governments passed anti-Chinese laws and imposed taxes to discourage Chinese immigration and to deny civil rights to those working in the U.S. But when the Central Pacific began laying tracks in 1865, white labor was scarce and unreliable. Charles Crocker's solution to the labor shortage was to hire out-of-work Chinese.


Alfred A. Hart photograph of Chinese Central Pacific construction crews along the Humboldt Plains in Nevada. Hart served as official photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad from 1864 to 1869, documenting construction from Sacramento, California, to Promontory Summit, Utah.

In February 1865, Crocker and his subordinate James Strobridge employed 50 Chinese workers as an experiment to verify their capabilities of performing the arduous labor of laying tracks. They passed the test. Within a few months, the Central Pacific's Chinese workforce began their assault on the Sierra Nevada range, the workers blasting through the most difficult terrain of the entire railroad line. Receiving only $1 a day in salary and working 12 hour shifts six days a week, the Chinese lived in makeshift camps, sometimes in the tunnels they were blasting, and were often called upon to perform the most life-threatening construction duties.

In July 1868, Secretary of State William Seward concluded the Treaty of Trade, Consuls, and Emigration with China. Known as the Burlingame Treaty, named after consul Anson Burlingame, the treaty gave China favored nation status and was meant to increase trade between the U.S. and China. A corollary component of the treaty increased the number of Chinese immigrants and provided civil rights protection for Chinese living and working in the U.S. Immigration increased soon after the treaty was signed: 11,085 Chinese immigrants in 1868, and 14,994 Chinese immigrants in 1869. At the height of the transcontinental construction period, the Central Pacific employed over 12,000 Chinese workers, which was more than 90 percent of the company's workforce.

The Central Pacific released Chinese workers in April 1869 with the completion of the railroad at Promontory, Utah. Racial tensions increased in the West as the workers returned to California in search of employment. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred future Chinese immigration and denied naturalization for those already in the U.S. The Act stood in place for 60 years until President Franklin Roosevelt repealed it in 1943 during World War II.


Maps, images, and other
content used in this site are
derived from the collections of
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Transcontinental Railroad history: Importance, workers, challenges, and funding

Importance of The Transcontinental Railroad
In the 1850s, major railroad projects were viewed as projects for the public good, in much the same way we justify public investment in airports and highways. Usually a joint venture between a state or local government and private interests, railroads were expected to generate fair returns for public and private investors, but their ultimate goal was to create a transportation infrastructure that enhanced general prosperity. At the same time, railroad development was undergoing a transformation, moving toward a more speculative and entrepreneurial model where profit and private interests took priority.

The Three Union Pacifics
Envisioned according to older, more cooperative and altruistic standards and expectations, the original Union Pacific emerged in a period of great distress in the U.S. But its speedy completion and efficient operation relied on new business methods and different styles of railroading. The Civil War became a fulcrum in American railroad history, and it necessarily changed what UP was at conception and what it became by the time it was delivered.

Union Pacific and the Central Pacific together worked to build the Transcontinental Railroad, wich was the final — and perhaps, most remarkable — expression of a U.S. railroad as a true public work and national project. The ideals that informed it, the manner of its creation, and the way it was built were characteristic of the earliest days of railroading, projects for the public good.

At the same time, it was Union Pacific one of the first major railroads begun at a point when railroading had adopted a new, compelling, and rather ruthlessly capitalist business model.

Consider the times: The entire economy was being militarized. Men such as J. Edgar Thomson of the Pennsylvania Railroad were revolutionizing and systematizing railroad management. Great sums of money were sloshing about in new and undisciplined ways, which complicated otherwise ethical business decisions.

The original UP had to surmount three hurdles: Project design and funding, construction, and regular operations. The railroad accomplished the first two splendidly and badly botched the third.

First, according to the political and cultural climate of the times, to be approved and funded, the Transcontinental Railroad had to be represented as an old-fashioned, patriotic, and cooperatively run “public” project.

Second, in order to be built, it had to become a quasi-military organization with ruthless discipline and laser-like focus. That was the work that Gen. Grenville Dodge, the Casement brothers, and tens of thousands of immigrants, civilians, and former soldiers accomplished under harsh conditions. Too often, we understand the UP in terms of its physical construction and not in terms of its larger contexts.

Third, to operate successfully in the changing post-Civil War economic environment, UP needed to be a modern, well-managed, entrepreneurially motivated private entity with the freedom to innovate and grow. Instead, it was both constrained by the terms of the Pacific Railroad Act (authorizing what would become the Transcontinental Railroad) and hijacked by successive managements intent upon extracting whatever cash they could from an increasingly fragile and damaged company. By the end of the Civil War and the railroad’s construction, patriotic motivations had largely dissipated. The company slipped into the hands of crooks and speculators. In the “anything goes” spirit following the war, UP was structurally doomed to failure and easy pickings.

Transcontinental Railroad Challenges
It is easy to paint the so-called “Gilded Age” between roughly 1865 and 1900 as a period of explosive growth and change, unbridled greed and corruption, corporate mischief, and a survival-of-the-fittest ethos.

And, for the most part, it was.

By autumn 1863, when the UP was formally incorporated in New York, the gloss of public oversight and national purpose had begun to fade. In the year since a board of commissioners’ meeting in Chicago, the tide of war had shifted in the Union’s favor. The Transcontinental Railroad was no longer a matter of national defense.

While it may have been inevitable, it was unfortunate that UP evolved into the kind of speculative entity then common on Wall Street. Control passed to groups of manipulators and financiers who regarded the railroad as a kind of 19th-century automated teller machine. While front-line railroaders and operating managers strove to run an effective railroad, the company itself seemed constantly in play in the casino economy of the time.

The Union Pacific of the late 19th century was challenged by inept management, serial scandals, two financial panics, two bankruptcies, political pot shots, and the kinds of external events that damage even strong corporations. Mark Twain coined the era “The Great Barbeque.”

How was the transcontinental railroad funded?

Perhaps the cleverest scheme UP’s management executed was Credit Mobilier of America, the independent construction company hired to build the Union Pacific from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Ogden, Utah. The original idea was to keep everyone honest by separating the management and operation of the railroad from its construction. That way the government could closely monitor payments, and the company could ensure that it was getting fair value for its money.

In practice, the use of supposedly separate construction companies was a splendid way to set up regular embezzlement programs. On the UP, a group of the railroad’s directors and officers owned Credit Mobilier, which meant that Credit Mobilier could (and did) submit grossly inflated invoices to the UP for payment by the U.S. government. It wasn’t explicitly illegal, and there were few consequences for those involved. The one exception was Congressman Oakes Ames, who as president of Credit Mobilier had been especially generous in providing his colleagues with cash gifts and opportunities to buy stock on favorable terms.

Politicians who got Credit Mobilier stock profited handsomely, either through dividends (sometimes 100 percent) or by selling the shares at inflated values. Naturally, the 30 or so congressional beneficiaries of Credit Mobilier’s generosity were staunch advocates of additional funding for the railroad’s construction. This particular scandal broke during the 1872 presidential election. In an unseemly case of scapegoating, Oakes Ames was censured and died soon afterward.

Even when UP tried to grow its business legitimately and confront rising competition from newly completed transcontinental railroads, it faced sustained criticism for building “branch” lines. These were secondary main tracks to places like Denver and Julesburg, Colo., and Pocatello, Idaho. Critics argued that UP was legally bound to remain a bridge line, and that the lateral lines represented a misuse of capital or a violation of its original purpose.

In fact, it was clear that traffic generated by these additional lines was keeping the railroad alive. It would be enough to help the railroad become what it is today.

Interested in learning more about the history of the Transcontinental Railroad? You’ll find it in our special issue, available online.


The Transcontinental Railroad’s Impact on World War II

By the 1940s, the original Transcontinental Railroad main line around the north end of the Great Salt Lake had fulfilled its original purpose of connecting the eastern United States with California, and was now needed for World War II.

Specifically, the U.S. war effort needed the Transcontinental Railroad’s steel rails.

The Promontory Branch, as it was known by then, ran through the desert from Corinne through Promontory to Lucin. It had not been profitable for Southern Pacific since the Lucin Cutoff across the Great Salt Lake was completed in 1904, but was kept intact as a secondary route. Traffic consisted of a weekly mixed train and occasional extra freights in peak harvest season.

Southern Pacific fails to meet operating costs and seeks abandonment
SP first tried to abandon the Promontory Branch in the early 1930s after decades of losses. On April 3, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression, the road petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission for permission to cease operation over the majority of the line between Kelton and Lucin, Utah, 55 miles.

The first abandonment hearings were held by the Public Utilities Commission of Utah on behalf of the ICC. The high desert land around Promontory was used primarily for grazing cattle and wintering sheep, and several shippers and ranchers protested the abandonment, stating that the railroad was needed to haul in feed for their animals since the few dirt roads in the area were not passable in winter. However, there was very little opposition. By the 1930s just 60 families lived in the region, so passenger traffic was negligible, with a single coach or the train’s caboose being adequate for the few travelers carried.

A surprise objection came from the U.S. government, which opposed the abandonment as it desired to keep the Promontory Branch intact either as a backup for the route across the Great Salt Lake or as a secondary main line in the event of war. It reminded SP that since the line had been part of the original Transcontinental Railroad route and the land grants associated with it, the company had a moral (but no legal) obligation to maintain it.

SP countered the arguments by showing that it lost money operating the branch. The parties in favor of keeping the line intact claimed that the losses incurred in its operation were insignificant to the Southern Pacific’s overall finances.

Based on these and other considerations, the ICC concluded that benefits to the sheep and cattle industry outweighed any inconvenience to the railroad — even though SP was only proposing to discontinue operations and to keep the line in serviceable condition. Thus, the initial abandonment effort failed when the ICC denied the petition on June 11, 1934.

The Southern Pacific seeks abandonment a second time

SP was not willing to give up so easily. The petition was reopened on December 12, 1934, this time covering the Kelton–Lucin segment. Although the railroad’s operating deficit had decreased, this was primarily due to a reduction in maintenance. After years of neglect, the Promontory Branch was in poor shape — the track was deemed only “passable.” Future revenues were estimated to be unchanged. In spite of all of these factors the ICC again denied the petition to abandon on March 17, 1936.

Despite the ICC ruling, on March 31, 1937, the SP essentially abandoned the western part of the branch. This was accomplished by providing only “on-call” service between Kelton and Lucin after the Public Utilities Commission of Utah gave the railroad permission to discontinue regular service. Trains now operated on Wednesdays from Ogden to Kelton as required. Passenger service was discontinued three years later, in April 1940.

In March 1942, three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Southern Pacific again proposed abandonment — this time for the entire 120.8 miles between Lucin and Corinne. Traffic between Kelton and Lucin, mainly animal feed and livestock, had not changed much in the six years since the first abandonment hearings. One of the only gains was from the Rosette Asphalt Co. of Rozel, Utah, which was shipping out drums of asphalt at a rate of one carload a month, up from one or two annually in previous years. The expense of operating the line from Corinne to Dathol (Corinne Junction) was $5,288, much greater than any income brought in by the minor increase in traffic.

Now was the time to tear up the line, Southern Pacific argued, because the rails were materials “urgently needed at the present time” due to the war. Additionally, in stark contrast to its earlier opposition, the federal government supported the abandonment since the gains to be made from rail salvage outweighed any possible role the branch could play in wartime traffic.

Once again abandonment hearings were held, and once again there was opposition. It was noted that many of those protesting did not ship by rail, chief among them local chambers of commerce and other civic groups. Box Elder County stated it did not want to lose the property taxes paid by the railroad.

This time, the ICC quickly approved abandonment, with an effective date of June 11, 1942. It was stipulated that SP would sell the 4.8 miles between Corinne and Dathol to Oregon Short Line, a Union Pacific subsidiary, and the remainder of the line would be scrapped and the rails turned over to the U.S. Navy.

Salvage operations began almost immediately. A contract to lift the rails was awarded to Hyman-Michaels of Chicago. This firm had been salvaging rail lines for many years now it was to dismantle the most historic of them all.

Scrapping of the branch started near Corinne on July 1, 1942, with the gang working westward. SP required Hyman-­Michaels to provide its own motive power, which consisted of former Minneapolis & St. Louis 2-6-0s Nos. 311 and 319. Through the next two months, the scrappers moved across the desert, salvaging rails, ties, and all other hardware for reuse. By mid-August they were camped at the Blue Creek water tank east of Promontory, and by early September their outfit train had been relocated to Rozel, 8 miles west, where water was available for the men and the locomotives.

A ceremonial “unspiking” of the Last Iron Spike
Lost to time are the details of who conceived the idea of an unspiking ceremony to pay homage to the original event. However, out of that person’s proposal came a coordinated effort to arrange for an event that local and state politicians, civic and business leaders, and members of the military and the media could see history reversed. The ceremony was to be part patriotic fervor, part photo opportunity, and part social function. Essential to the plan was the support of Hyman-Michaels, whose owners backed the unspiking as a way to obtain publicity for their firm.

By August 1942 the press reported that “within a few weeks” there would be a special ceremony to commemorate the unspiking of the Golden Spike. The date was originally set for September 4, 1942, when the scrap gang expected to be at Promontory. However, it was later moved back to September 8 because Hyman-Michaels was behind schedule due to the wartime labor shortage. Workers were hard to come by even at top wages of 75 cents an hour.

Additionally, the scrappers were hampered by having to burn thick brush off the track before pulling up the rails. Range fires were a major a concern, because if one got out of control it would pose a danger to adjoining grain fields and grazing lands, so the work was slowed to ensure that no such event occurred.

Meanwhile, for the unspiking ceremony, Southern Pacific prepared a special spike in its Ogden shops. Newspaper reports from the time do not indicate what was “special” about it, although it was presumably a steel spike dipped in brass or painted to give it the appearance of gold. It was presented for the ceremony by SP’s Salt Lake Division Superintendent L. P. Hopkins, but whether this spike was used during the unspiking is uncertain.

JEFF TERRY is a Utah native, railroad photographer, and historian who lives near St. Paul, Minn. He is a rules instructor for Canadian Pacific in the Twin Cities. THORNTON B. WAITE lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and has written several books and numerous articles on railroad history. JAMES D. REISDORFF is a freelance writer and publisher from David City, Neb. His South Platte Press has published more than 100 books, mostly on western railroad topics, since 1982. That includes The “Un-Driving of the Golden Spike,” released in 2013, by the same authors, on which this story is based.

Interested in learning more about the history of the Transcontinental Railroad? You’ll find it in our special issue, available online.


John Stevens is considered to be the father of American railroads. In 1826 Stevens demonstrated the feasibility of steam locomotion on a circular experimental track constructed on his estate in Hoboken, New Jersey, three years before George Stephenson perfected a practical steam locomotive in England.

A train route across the United States, finished in 1869. It was the project of two railroad companies: the Union Pacific built from the east, and the Central Pacific built from the west.


The Transcontinental Railroad, African Americans and the California Dream

Alison Rose Jefferson is a historian and author of the forthcoming book, Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.

A pivotal moment for the era and a monumental industrial infrastructure achievement in the history of the United States, the transcontinental railroad completion in 1869 had a profound effect on American life which changed the nation forever. It was a revolution which reduced travel time from the east to west coasts from months to about a week, and at less cost than previous overland and by sea options, that open economic and cultural opportunities for the possibilities of the movement of people and goods. It opened California, other parts of the U.S., and the Pacific World to more travelers, tourists, emigrants, and settlers.

A settler colonialist and imperialist project, corporate and military organization hosted imported (mostly from China) laborers who were paid low wages to plow across and lay the tracks through indigenous people&rsquos sovereign nation lands to connect the distant colony of California to become a vital part of the U.S. continental empire. The railroad companies produced pamphlets and magazines to recruit whites from the U.S. and Europe to settle in California and the West, and those who wanted to explore the Western landscape from the comfort of the modern railway car. Although not thought of as part of the audience for this promotion, African Americans would also learn and benefit from what the transcontinental railroad could offer.

Before, during and after the transcontinental line&rsquos construction, in southern states, thousands of enslaved and then freedmen worked on the railroads grading lines, building bridges, and blasting tunnels. They working as firemen shoveling coal into the boiler riding alongside the engineer, and as brakemen and yard switchmen. They loaded baggage and freight, and sometimes drove the train. Even with racist resistance to blacks as they migrated to northern states that rose after the Civil War, the new freedmen joined their northern brothers in the few jobs like these mentioned which were open to them.

The post-Civil War years into the early decades of the twentieth century, black men gained employment on the transcontinental railroad, most often as Pullman Company&rsquos Palace Car porters and waiters, helping to define American travel during the railroad transportation era. These Pullman porters, as they were called, made &ldquoporter&rdquo synonymous with &ldquoNegro,&rdquo and provided glorified servant work as valet, bellhop, maid, and janitor for luxury sleeper cars used for overnight travel. Pullman cars were like or better than the best of America&rsquos hostelries of the era, only on wheels.


Value in the Civil War

The railroads also played a vital role in the American Civil War. They allowed the North and South to move men and equipment vast distances to further their own war aims. Because of their strategic value to both sides, they also became focal points of each side's war efforts. In other words, the North and South both engaged in battles with the design to secure different railroad hubs. For example, Corinth, Mississippi was a key railroad hub which was taken first by the Union a few months after the Battle of Shiloh in May 1862. Later, the Confederates tried to recapture the town and the railroads in October of the same year but were defeated. Another key point about the importance of railroads in the Civil War was that the North's more extensive railway system was a factor in their ability to win the war. The transportation network of the North allowed them to move men and equipment longer distances and with greater speed, thus providing them with a significant advantage.


Activity 4. Because of the Train a-Comin'!

After the students have created their cause-and-effect ladders, they will work with the Timeline of Events in the West, on the EDSITEment resource New Perspectives on the West, for the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s to look for events that validate student cause-and-effect hypotheses suggested in Activity 3.

Divide the class into six groups, each assigned events as shown on the timelines provided. (You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view timelines.) Make sure each group has at least one strong reader. Give the students time to look over the list. Proceed chronologically as each group names one or more events that relate to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Students should explain the connection based on the discussion in Activity 3. Further research on any of these events would make a good extension of the lesson.


Watch the video: Building the Transcontinental Railroad (January 2022).