Saturday, May 14, 2011

Transcontinental Railroad

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

One hundred forty-one years ago this week, on May 10, 1869, the United States was "joined" East coast to West coast by the pounding of a Golden Spike joining the Union Pacific railroad to the Central Pacific railroad in Promontory Point, UT. The rails now stretched more than 3,000 miles from New York to California.

In It’s About Time: How Long History Took, Mike Flanagan tells us that the building of the Transcontinental Railroad took five years, six months and fifteen days, between 1863-1869. The Civil War disrupted the building somewhat.

The planning for a railroad that went from one coast to the other had been bounced around for decades, starting in the 1830’s. By 1845, several people were inspired to investigate a cross-country railroad. Asa Whitney explored the Central route and widely promoted the railroad via pamphlets, speeches and proposals to congress. The influx of English-speaking people into Mexican-held territory, and finally the admittance of California into the Union as a territory in 1848, quickly followed by the 1849 gold rush, increased interest in the railroad.

During the 1850’s, railroad developers and land speculators, along with commercial interests promoted the building of the rail line. However, the nation was still in a huge debate over the expansion of slavery and the idea never fully got off the ground as “sectional differences over routes delayed the start of the line.” (America: A Narrative History)

Several routes were proposed throughout the this time. A Southern Route was devised because of fears that a more northerly route would be hampered by winter snow. This route would go through Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The northern route, proposed by Theodore Judah and Daniel Strong, would go through the Sierra Nevada Mountains through Clipper Gap, Emigrant Gap, and Donner Pass, then south to Truckee. The short-lived Pony Express (1860-1861) showed that the northern route was passable, even during the winter.

The withdrawal of the Southern states from the Union and the start of the Civil War allowed for the passage of the Pacific Railway Bill with a less divided congress. Lincoln signed the bill into law in 1862, which authorized the north-central route jointly built by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific. While some construction started during the Civil War, actual work didn’t begin until 1865, after the war ended. The Central Pacific started in Sacramento, CA, while the Union Pacific started in Omaha, NE.

Each railroad was paid $16,000 per mile built over an easy grade, $32,000 per mile in the high plains, and $48,000 per mile in the mountains. The loose terms of the law allowed for a lot of exploitation on the part of the companies. They built extra miles of track and directed the railways toward land they owned.

The Union Pacific workers were made up of ex-soldiers, Mormons (through Utah), and Irish immigrants, while The Central Pacific mainly employed Chinese men looking to make it rich and return to their homeland to marry and buy land. By 1887, The Central Pacific had 12,000 Chinese laborers, representing 90 percent of their workforce. White men could earn between a dollar and three dollars a day. The Chinese workers were paid significantly less, however, after a strike, they were given a small increase in pay.

According to America: A Narrative History (my college history book), “The Union Pacific pushed across the Plains at a rapid pace, avoiding the Rocky Mountains by going through Evans Pass in Wyoming. The work crews…had to cope with bad roads, water shortages, rugged weather, and Indian attacks. Construction of the rail line and bridges was hasty and much of it was so flimsy that it had to be redone later.”

The Union Pacific had to build through mountains, namely the Sierras, and only built 689 miles of track compared to the Union Pacific’s 1,086 miles. On May 10, 1869, six years after work began, the two tracks were joined at Promontory Point, Utah, finally connecting the two coasts.

According to website:

“Despite the publicity for the "last spike", the American rail network did not yet actually run to either coast. In August 1870 the final connection was made and the Atlantic to Pacific railroad was completed. The journey was not cheap - the fare from Omaha to San Francisco via third class sleeping car was about $65.

On June 4, 1876 a train named the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left New York City.”

The railroad opened a new era in American history. Farms, ranches and towns sprouted up around the lines. The rail lines brought people, goods and animals to vast Western United States.

References and further reading:

A condensed version of this article first appeared on the Seduced by History blog on August 19, 2010.

Anna Kathryn Lanier


  1. Yup, now this is history I know about. lol I live approx 20 or so miles from Promontory Utah. We have a yearly celebration for this event called "Golden Spike".

    Great moment in history!


  2. Very interesting history lesson! I enjoyed it.

  3. What a nice and educational read. I so love stories of the Old West. Thanks for sharing.
    Sincerely, Debby Lee

  4. What a great post! I recently watched the mini-series, 'Into the West'. The episode dealing with the railroad expansion highlighted the dangers to workers as they drilled through the mountain passes.

  5. Anna Kathryn, very interesting info. My brother-in-law's Italian ancestors worked on the southern route and ended up in Gallup, NM when work was completed. Having been through Gallup, I've often wondered what a group of Italian immigrants thought of their new surroundings. Thanks for sharing.

  6. The railroad was a necessity, a grand way to travel, and it was also played a great part in the romance of our country--everyone loves a train, I think, unless one rumbles by in front of your house. How many stories have been written or told involving trains? Endles numbers.
    I love trains, except when I sit at a crossing for a long, slow-moving one while the frozen food in my grocery sack thaw and drip.
    Here in town, we have three sets of tracks that cross the city, and a total of 54 trains move along on a daily basis. Uh-huh, we spend a lot of time sitting at a crossing, if we hit it just right.
    Fortunately, our city fathers have one overpass now, and a second soon to come. That will help so much.
    Thanks for this story--we love trains! Celia

  7. Hello, everyone. Thanks for stopping by. I haven't written a train story yet, but I agree trains make nice romance setting.

  8. nice and I even got a couple of 'I didn't know that' out of it. thanks for the info. I know $65 was a lot of money then, but just think how far that much would get you today. not much past the driveway. lol

  9. Larion, LOL, so true. My daughter came over for the weekend, lives about 250 miles away and said it cost her $60 to gas up for the one-way trip.

  10. Great post! I've book-marked it for reference! Thanks much!

  11. Actually, the railroad STILL doesn't go all the way to the coast. I just traveled by Amtrak from Chicago to the western terminus - which is actually Emeryville, on the opposite side of the bay from San Francisco.

    It was a great (though slow!) trip along the Union Pacific route through the Rockies and the Sierras. Amazing that they managed this a hundred and fifty years ago. Even today, bad weather can stop the trains from running. Apparently the week before we traveled (early April) snow in the Sierras closed down the normal tracks for a week!


    P.S. Check my blog for a travelog and pictures from my trip (

  12. Railroads played a huge role in the west. From moving people to money exchanged and outlaws.

    Great post!


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