Watch Now


FreightWaves Classics/Leaders: Abe Lincoln signed legislation that created the transcontinental railroad

President Lincoln. (Photo: Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

February 12, 1809

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 – 213 years ago tomorrow.  Lincoln’s birthplace was in Kentucky, but the family eventually settled in Illinois. The future 16th president of the United States had little formal schooling; however, he was intelligent and sought knowledge and decided to become a lawyer.

Abraham Lincoln. 
(Photo: jsonline.com)
Abraham Lincoln.
(Photo: jsonline.com)

Early career and legal work for railroads

Lincoln settled in New Salem, Illinois and began his law practice. In 1834 Lincoln was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. His political and legal careers did well.

In 1846 Lincoln was elected to the U.S. Congress. He took a two-year leave from his law practice (now with William H. Herndon) but renewed his practice after his term in Congress ended.

At the beginning of the 1850s, Lincoln started dealing with railroad cases and by the middle of the decade he was considered one of the most successful Illinois practitioners of railroad law. His first major case was in 1851; Lincoln represented the Alton & Sangamon Railroad.


During the 1850s, Lincoln also successfully defended the Illinois Central Railroad in cases involving property taxes. He also defended the Rock Island Railroad in 1856 in a “precedent-setting case involving the right to build bridges across heavily traveled waterways.”

On the day before his 52nd birthday, Abraham Lincoln left Springfield by train bound for Washington, D.C. (Image: abelincoln.com)
On the day before his 52nd birthday, Abraham Lincoln left Springfield by train bound for Washington, D.C. (Image: abelincoln.com)

President Lincoln

Lincoln campaigned and became the Republican Party’s candidate for the presidency in 1860. Elected president in November 1860, Lincoln took office in early March 1861. Slightly more than a month later, the Civil War began. While President Abraham Lincoln is best known for leading the United States during the war, he had other far-reaching accomplishments as well.

The transcontinental railroad begins under President Lincoln 

Settlers flocked to the western territories of the United States in the 1850s. This led Congress to acknowledge the need for efficient rail transport to the Pacific coast. In the decade prior to the Civil War, Congress commissioned topographical surveys in order to identify the best route. However, northern and southern factions in Congress sought a route advantageous to their own regions. This prevented Congress from passing any proposed legislation for a transcontinental railroad. 

Ironically, only days before resigning as a U.S. Senator from Mississippi (after the state seceded from the Union), Jefferson Davis (who became the president of the Confederate States of America) expressed his support for the railroad as a symbol of national unity. “I have thought it an achievement worthy of our age and of our people, to couple with bonds of iron the people of the Pacific with the valley of the Mississippi,” he declared, “and show that even snow-capped mountains intervening could not divide them.”

There were alternate routes considered for the transcontinental railroad. Because of the outbreak of the Civil War, the routes outlined in orange and green were chosen. (Image: historyonthenet.com)
There were alternate routes considered for the transcontinental railroad. Because of the outbreak of the Civil War, the routes outlined in orange and green were chosen. (Image: historyonthenet.com)

After the secession of the southern states, the remaining members of Congress agreed on the northern route to the Pacific. In addition, they authorized the use of federal lands to subsidize the construction of a railroad and telegraph line. 

President Lincoln. 
(Photo: teachingamericanhistory.org)
President Lincoln.
(Photo: teachingamericanhistory.org)

The first Pacific Railway Act, which became law when President Lincoln signed the legislation on July 1, 1862, “offered government incentives to assist men of talent, men of character, men who are willing to invest” to develop the country’s first transcontinental rail line. The legislation granted rights of way to the Union Pacific Railroad to build a rail line westward from Omaha, Nebraska, and to the Central Pacific Railroad to build a rail line eastward from Sacramento, California. As incentives, government bonds were authorized to help fund the work. Moreover, vast land grants were awarded to the railroads. 

By 1864, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads were still hobbled in their search for sufficient capital for the vast construction projects they had undertaken. Congress passed the second Pacific Railway Act, which doubled the size of the land grants and allowed the railroads to sell their own bonds. 

In regard to the land grants, from 1850 to 1871 the railroads were awarded more than 175 million acres of public land. That is equivalent to an area more than one-tenth of the entire United States or an area larger than Texas.

The two railroad companies employed thousands of workers (many of them immigrants) and wrestled with major challenges including “harsh weather, massive mountain ranges and conflicts with Native Americans.” Nearly seven years after the law became effective, the two rail lines met at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869. (To read a FreightWaves Classics article about the transcontinental railroad, follow this link.)

The two railroads meet in Utah. (Photo: nps.gov)
The two railroads meet in Utah. (Photo: nps.gov)

The legacy of the Pacific Railway Acts

The Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and the Pacific Railway Act of 1864 provided exclusive authorization for the two railroads to build the transcontinental railroad. It also provided the railroads funding and land grants that opened up vast territories to Americans seeking a better life. 

The transcontinental railroad reduced the time it took to cross the continent from several months to one week! More than 150 years later the transcontinental railroad is considered one of the greatest engineering achievements of the 19th century.

The route taken by the Lincoln funeral train. (Image: wikipedia.org)
The route taken by the Lincoln funeral train. (Image: wikipedia.org)

Another legacy

President Lincoln’s assassination meant that he did not live to see the completion of the transcontinental railroad.

Abraham Lincoln had traveled by train to Washington, D.C. in February 1861 for his inauguration and the beginning of his presidency. Following his assassination in April 1865, his body was returned to Springfield by train. Lincoln was the first American president whose body was transported by a funeral train.

Lincoln's funeral train in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: publish.illinois.edu)
Lincoln’s funeral train in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Photo: publish.illinois.edu)

The funeral train made its way slowly from Washington to Chicago. Concurrently, work was taking place to widen the Chicago & Alton Railroad’s right of way between Chicago and Springfield to handle the Pullman railcar Mrs. Lincoln had requested for the final segment of the journey. 

This meant that Abraham Lincoln’s final act to develop the nation’s railroads was unintentional. However, his funeral train publicized the luxuries of Pullman cars, which began another chapter in U.S. train travel.

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.