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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: 153rd anniversary of transcontinental railroad is today (Part 1)

The Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads meet on May 10, 1869. (Photo: Andrew J. Russell)

One of the key events in the history of the United States occurred 153 years ago today – the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (which was also known as “The Pacific Railway” and the “Overland Route”). North of the Great Salt Lake, at Promontory Point, Utah Territory on May 10, 1869, the ceremonial last spikes were driven and the railroad was completed.

The ceremony and its significance

The tracks of the eastbound Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) joined those of the westward Union Pacific Railroad (UP) at Promontory Point. The New York Times reported on May 11, “The long-looked-for moment has arrived. The inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard and the dwellers on the Pacific slopes are henceforth emphatically one people.” 

The completion of the railroad crossing the nation took place despite the disruptions of the Civil War and major engineering challenges and difficult logistics.

As part of the festivities, the Union Pacific No. 119 steam locomotive from the east and the Central Pacific No. 60 steam locomotive (“Jupiter”) from the west were drawn up face-to-face with each other on tracks that would soon be fully connected. 

The two railroads' locomotives at Promontory Summit. (Photo: University of California Press)
The two railroads’ locomotives at Promontory Summit. (Photo: University of California Press)

Those speaking at the ceremony included CPRR president (and former California governor) Leland Stanford, who talked about both the historical significance and economic benefits of the new coast-to-coast railway network. “This line of rails connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, and affording to commerce a new transit, will prove, we trust, the speedy forerunner of increased facilities,” Stanford said. “The Pacific Railroad will, as soon as commerce shall begin fully to realize its advantages, demonstrate the necessity of such improvements in railroading as to render practicable the transportation of freights at much less rates than are possible under any system which has been thus far anywhere adopted.”


Shortly after Stanford’s remarks, the last two rails of the Union Pacific were laid by Irish laborers while the last two rails of the Central Pacific were laid by Chinese workers. At around one o’clock on that Monday afternoon, a total of four ceremonial spikes – two made of gold, one of silver, and another a blend of gold, silver, and iron – were tapped by dignitaries into a railroad tie made of laurelwood. Stanford tapped in the final spike (a gold one that is now famous as the “Golden Spike” or “Last Spike”).

News of the events at Promontory Summit was circulated quickly via telegraph across the nation; the response was exuberant. Stanford and Union Pacific vice president Thomas Clark “Doc” Durant jointly sent a telegram to President Ulysses S. Grant. It stated, “We have the honor to report that the last rail is laid, the last spike is driven, the Pacific Railroad is finished.”

Route of the first Transcontinental Railroad. The Central Pacific (red) laid track from Sacramento to Promontory Summit and the Union Pacific (blue) laid track from Omaha. (Original artwork: DanMS/subject to the GNU Free Documentation License)
Route of the first Transcontinental Railroad. The Central Pacific (red) laid track from Sacramento to Promontory Summit and the Union Pacific (blue) laid track from Omaha. (Original artwork: DanMS/subject to the GNU Free Documentation License)

Background

The quest to build the transcontinental railroad had begun 16 years earlier, in 1853, when Congress authorized a survey for a coast-to-coast railroad. When completed, the rail network measured 1,912 miles. 

The new cross-country railroad was pivotal to the development of the nation, reducing a six-month trip to California from the East to no longer than two weeks. The railroad shrank distances and differences between sections of the ever-growing nation.

This stamp was issued by the U.S. Post Office in 1944, the 75th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. (Image: marefa.org)
This stamp was issued by the U.S. Post Office in 1944, the 75th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad.
(Image: marefa.org)

The railroad’s significance

On June 4, 1876, the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco via the first transcontinental railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it had left New York City. Ten years earlier, the same journey would have taken months over land or weeks on ship, possibly all the way around South America.

The Linda Hall Library explains that before the transcontinental railroad was completed, “a journey across the continent to the western states meant a dangerous six-month trek over rivers, deserts and mountains. Alternatively, a traveler had the option to hazard a six-week sea voyage around Cape Horn, or sail to Central America and cross the Isthmus of Panama by rail, risking exposure to any number of deadly diseases in the crossing.”

The rise of railroads

The steam locomotive was invented in England in 1812-13, and the world’s first railroads were built there (with the first steam locomotive pulling passengers in 1825). In the United States, the first steam locomotive came on the scene in 1830. The nation’s first railroads were built in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, and trains began to run with increasing frequency during the 1830s. As the 1840s came to a close, railroads had extended their reach throughout the East, South and Midwest. By 1850, approximately 9,000 miles of railroad track had been laid east of the Missouri River (which at that time was the “boundary” between the civilized part of the United States and the “frontier”).

During that same period (1830s-1850s), settlers in increasing numbers began to move westward across the United States and into the territories that lay west of the Missouri River. Westward emigration increased dramatically after the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California in 1848. The overland journey was risky, difficult and long. Settlers took one of several “trails” – the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail or the California Trail – across mountains, plains, rivers and deserts. Weather, lack of water, mountains and raids by Native Americans who were protecting their lands were just some of the obstacles faced by those making the overland journey.

Early English railways. (Image: anglotopia.net)
Early English railways. (Image: anglotopia.net)

The push for a transcontinental railroad

For these and other reasons, the idea of building a railroad across the continent to the Pacific Ocean was gaining support from many quarters in the 1840s. During the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Mexico’s California territory was under U.S. control by January 1847. It was formally annexed and paid for by the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the war and was signed in 1848. 

Gold was discovered on January 24, 1848, in Sutter Creek near Coloma, California. The California Gold Rush soon followed, and statehood for California occurred very quickly, on September 9, 1850. As thousands of immigrants and miners sought their fortunes in California, support increased to unite the West Coast with the rest of the nation via rail.

The U.S. Congress appropriated funds for several survey parties during the 1850s to determine possible routes for the proposed transcontinental railroad. The choice of the route became a political and economic “football” – with groups promoting a “northern” route and others promoting a “southern” route.

Theodore Judah, architect of the transcontinental railroad and first chief engineer of the Central Pacific. (Photo: learning.cehrd.edu.np)
Theodore Judah, architect of the transcontinental railroad and first chief engineer of the Central Pacific.
(Photo: learning.cehrd.edu.np)

Theodore Judah was a civil engineer who had worked on the construction of the first railroad in California. He was a vocal proponent of a route that followed the 41st parallel, which ran through the states and territories of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. Many recognized that his plan was viable, but those opposing it pointed out the difficulties of such a route – including the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Building the railroad on Judah’s route would require engineering projects that had not yet been done successfully in the U.S., such as tunneling through mountains and building complex bridges across numerous ravines.

Throughout the 1850s Judah pushed his plan. In 1859, he was shown a different passage through the mountains near the now-famous Donner Pass. The route was better than his earlier one; its grade was not as steep and the railroad line would “only” have to cross one mountain instead of two.

The railroads and the routes

Judah and his new partner incorporated the Central Pacific Railroad Company, and convinced leading business and political leaders in California to invest in it. Judah presented his route and ideas to Congress in October 1861. Many in Congress were opposed to proceeding with the transcontinental railroad because of the Civil War, but President Lincoln was a proponent of moving forward. He signed into law the Pacific Railway Act on July 1, 1862. The Act authorized land grants (first 6,400 acres and later doubled to 12,800 acres) and government bonds ($32,000 and later $48,000) for every mile of track built. Two companies were authorized to build different parts of the railroad – the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California (the Central Pacific) and the Union Pacific Railroad.

However, three railroad companies actually were involved in the building of the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific built 690 miles eastward from Sacramento to Promontory Summit. The Union Pacific built 1,085 miles from the road’s eastern terminus at Council Bluffs, Iowa (near Omaha, Nebraska) westward to Promontory Summit. Paddle steamers linked Sacramento to the cities and their harbor facilities on the San Francisco Bay until later in 1869, when the last link of the Pacific Railway’s grade was completed by the third and largely forgotten railroad – the Western Pacific Railroad Company. It built 132 miles of the Pacific Railway’s track, from Oakland/Alameda to Sacramento.

Judah died on November 2, 1863 of yellow fever he contracted in Panama on his way to New York to raise capital for the Central Pacific. The line had laid its first rails a week earlier, on October 26, 1863, beginning to build the railroad east from Sacramento under the direction of Samuel Montague.

The Union Pacific, to be built from east to west, had several potential routes. One route followed the Platte River along the North Fork, crossing the Continental Divide in Wyoming and continuing on to the Green River. President Lincoln favored this route and also decided that the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad would be in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River from Omaha.

Part 2 of this article will be published tomorrow (May 11, 2022).

FreightWaves thanks the Linda Hall Library, History.com, Wikipedia and other sources for material that contributed to this article.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.