1,907-mile contiguous railroad line constructed
between 1863 and 1869 across the western United
States connecting the Pacific coast at San
Francisco Bay with the existing Eastern U.S. rail
network at Council Bluffs, Iowa on the Missouri
1830 -- Peter
Cooper's Tom Thumb carries
passengers and goods along 13 miles of track
between Baltimore and Ellicott's Mills, Maryland.
By year's end, similar locomotive routes exist in
New York and South Carolina. Talk of a
transcontinental railroad begins soon after.
Much of the early debate was not so much over
whether it would be built, but what route it
should follow -- a "central" route, via
the Platte River in Nebraska and the South Pass
in Wyoming, or a "southern" route,
avoiding the Rockies by going through Texas to
Los Angeles. (A "northern" option
generally following the route explored by Lewis
and Clark through Montana and Oregon was
considered impractical because of snow.)
-- New York entrepreneur Asa Whitney leads a team
along the proposed central route to assess its
capabilities. Whitney travels widely to solicit
support for the rail line, prints maps and
pamphlets, and submits several proposals to
Congress. Legislation to begin construction of
the Pacific Railroad via the central route is
introduced in Congress but not acted on.
1848 -- California becomes a U.S. territory
with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended
War. The California
Gold Rush begins, bringing thousands of
people into the new territory.
September 9, 1850 -- California is admitted to
the Union as the 30th state.
June 1859 -- Discovery of the massive Comstock
Lode lures miners to Virginia City, Nevada, in
search of gold and silver ore.
July 1860 -- Engineer and enthusiast Theodore
Judah reaches Donner Pass (named for the
ill-fated emigrants of 1846) and immediately
recognizes the location as ideal for constructing
a line through the Sierra Nevada.
November 1860 -- Judah meets Sacramento
merchant Collis P. Huntington, who agrees to
invest in his railroad project. Huntington
brings in four other investors -- Mark Hopkins,
James Bailey, Charles Crocker, and Leland
Stanford. The six men organize themselves as
the first Board of Directors of the Central
Pacific Railroad Company.
July 1, 1862 -- President
Abraham Lincoln signs the Pacific Railroad
Bill, endorsing Central Pacific's efforts to
build the California line while simultaneously
chartering a Union Pacific Railroad Company to
build west from the Missouri River. The bill
grants each enterprise 6,400 acres of land and
$48,000 in government bonds per mile built. It
does not designate a meeting point for the lines.
it was decided that the railroad would follow the
central rather than the southern route, there was
general agreement that the western terminus would
be Sacramento. However, there was considerable
competition for the eastern terminus. Abraham
Lincoln selected Council Bluffs, near Omaha,
although the closest rail line was 150 miles
east. He had visited the site in 1859 while
working for railroad builder Thomas Durant as a
January 8, 1863 -- Newly elected California
Stanford shovels the first load of dirt at
the Central Pacific groundbreaking ceremony in
Sacramento. The Central Pacific makes quick
progress along the Sacramento Valley.
Construction was soon slowed however, first by
the Sierra Nevada mountains and then by winter
Summer 1863 -- With tensions building among
the Central Pacific board around financial and
contractual issues, Judah sails east to look for
October 26, 1863 -- The Central Pacific spikes
its first rails to ties.
October 30, 1863 -- Durant, who has illegally
manipulated a controlling interest in the Union
Pacific Railroad Company, gets himself appointed
the railroad's vice president and general
November 2, 1863 -- Theodore Judah dies in New
December 2, 1863 -- The Union Pacific formally
breaks ground in Omaha, Nebraska.
July 1, 1864 -- As lobbyists distribute cash
and bonds among legislators, Congress passes a
revised Pacific Railroad Bill. It doubles the
land grant, cedes all natural resources on the
line to the railroads, and removes limitations on
individual stock ownership.
October 1864 -- Herbert M. Hoxie wins the
Union Pacific construction bid, then signs the
contract over to Durant's new company, Credit
Mobilier. The move allows Durant to pay himself
for construction, generating giant profits
without congressional oversight.
January 20, 1865 -- President Abraham Lincoln
asks Massachusetts Senator Oakes Ames to help
manage the Union Pacific Railroad. Ames soon
invests in Credit Mobilier and promotes its
interests in Washington.
Around the same time, contractor Charles
Crocker convinces Central Pacific foreman James
Harvey Strobridge to try Chinese workers as a
means of expanding their labor force, which at
this time numbers just a few hundred Irishmen.
April 9, 1865 -- Robert
E. Lee surrenders, ending the Civil
War. Masses of soldiers demobilize, many of
whom will soon move west. The Union Pacific has
yet to spike a rail.
April 14, 1865 -- President Abraham Lincoln is
July 10, 1865 -- With Durant's activities
facing increased scrutiny in Washington, the
first rails of the Union Pacific line are spiked
February 1866 --
Durant hires General Jack Casement as the Union
Pacific's construction boss.
May 1866 -- Durant hires General Grenville
Dodge to be chief engineer of the Union Pacific.
July 1866 -- Casement's crews add 60 miles of
track to bring the Union Pacific line to the 100
1866 -- Casement and his crews pass the 100th
Meridian line on the prairies of Nebraska,
guaranteeing the Union Pacific the irrevocable
right to continue westward, as stipulated in the
Pacific Railroad Act.
May 1867 -- Officers of the Credit Mobilier
remove Durant from the Union Pacific presidency.
1867 -- Central Pacific workers blast through the
rock of the Summit Tunnel, completing the most
arduous of their tasks in the mountains.
April 16, 1868 -- Union Pacific construction
surmounts the highest point on both lines,
Sherman Summit, at an elevation of 8,200 feet in
August 1868 -- Mormon leader Brigham Young
provides Stanford with Mormon laborers for
Central Pacific grading work through the Utah
March 1869 -- Newly inaugurated President
Ulysses S. Grant announces he will withhold
federal funds until the two railroad companies
agree on a meeting point.
April 8, 1869 -- Dodge and Huntington settle
upon a meeting place for their two lines. It
takes two days' worth of tempestuous argument,
but the men negotiate convergence at Promontory
April 28, 1869 -- In a remarkable feat of
strength and organization, Charles Crocker's
Central Pacific crews lay an unheard-of 10 miles
of rail between sunrise and sunset.
May 10, 1869 -- With engines No. 119
and Jupiter practically touching
"noses," the Central Pacific and Union
Pacific railroads are joined with a ceremonial
golden spike driven by Stanford. In perhaps the
world's first live mass-media event, the hammer
and spike were wired to the telegraph line so
that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click
at telegraph stations nationwide. Technical
problems occurred, so clicks were actually sent
by the telegraph operator, which makes this, most
likely, the world's first fake mass media event.
Despite the publicity for the "last
spike", the American rail network did not
yet actually run to either coast. The final
connection was not made until August 1870.
June 4, 1876 -- A train named the Transcontinental
Express arrived in San Francisco 83 hours
and 39 minutes after it left New York City.
Facts, Figures, Etc.
Besides land grants along the right-of-way,
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.
These terms encouraged the companies to construct
many extra miles of track, direct the line toward
property they owned, and in many other ways
exploit the poorly written law to their benefit.
The Central Pacific laid 690 miles of track,
starting in Sacramento, and the Union Pacific
laid 1,087 miles of track, starting in Omaha.
The majority of the Union Pacific track
heading westward was built by Irish laborers, by
Mormons who constructed much of the track in
Utah, and after the war by veterans of the Union
and Confederate armies. Chinese immigrants did
most of the work on the Central Pacific track.
The mountains required tunneling, a slow,
expensive and dangerous process. Holes about 3/4
inch diameter were pounded five feet into the
rock face by hammer and chisel, a single hole was
a day's work for two men. The holes were then
filled with black powder explosive. The workers
developed a method, perhaps based on a Chinese
technique, of placing explosives on the side of
cliffs while working from large suspended
baskets. The baskets were then rapidly pulled to
safety after the fuses were lit. The Central
Pacific built 15 tunnels over the course of the
construction, the longest was called the Summit
with a length of 1,659 feet.
White men who worked on the railroad were paid
$35.00 a month plus room and board; the Chinese
were paid $25.00 a month, but paid for their own
The Transcontinental Railroad cost
approximately $50,000,000 to build.
Two fares were offered, the second class fare
at $60 or (~$967 in 2012 dollars) and about $100
(~$1,613) for first class. Sleeper cars were
available at a rate of about $2 (~$32) between
San Francisco and Promontory, Utah. Freight cars
were also added to the trains and local train
stations printed stagecoach connections at key
railroad terminals. A trip across the United
States took about a week, compared to the nearly
four months it took to make the trip by horse or
The Union Pacific RR was in bankruptcy less
than three years after the completion of the line
as details surfaced about overcharges by Credit
Mobilier for the building of the railroad. The
scandal was one of the biggest of the 19th
American Experience: Transcontinental
The History Channel http://www.history.com/topics/transcontinental-railroad
Ulysses S. Grant
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