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The Transcontinental Railroad

a 1,907-mile contiguous railroad line connecting the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing eastern U. S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa


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.)

1845 -- 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.

Asa Whitney
Asa Whitney

1848 -- California becomes a U.S. territory with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American 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.

Theodore Judah
Theodore Judah

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.

Collis P.Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Leland Stanford
Collis P. Hunrtington Mark Hopkins
Charles Crocker Leland Stanford

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.

Once 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 private attorney.

Thomas Durant
Thomas Durant

January 8, 1863 -- Newly elected California Governor Leland 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 snowstorms.

Summer 1863 -- With tensions building among the Central Pacific board around financial and contractual issues, Judah sails east to look for new investors.

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 manager.

November 2, 1863 -- Theodore Judah dies in New York City.

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 assassinated.

July 10, 1865 -- With Durant's activities facing increased scrutiny in Washington, the first rails of the Union Pacific line are spiked in Omaha.

February 1866 -- Durant hires General Jack Casement as the Union Pacific's construction boss.

Jack Casement
General Jack Casement

May 1866 -- Durant hires General Grenville Dodge to be chief engineer of the Union Pacific.

Grenville Dodge
General Grenville Dodge

July 1866 -- Casement's crews add 60 miles of track to bring the Union Pacific line to the 100 mile mark.

October 6, 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.

Casement at the 100th Meridian
passing the 100th Meridian

May 1867 -- Officers of the Credit Mobilier remove Durant from the Union Pacific presidency.

August 28, 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 the Rockies.

August 1868 -- Mormon leader Brigham Young provides Stanford with Mormon laborers for Central Pacific grading work through the Utah desert.

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 Summit, Utah.

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.

"Golden Spike Ceremony"
the 'golden spike ceremony'

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.

route of the Transcontinental Railroad
route of the Transcontinental Railroad

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 by 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 supplies.

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 wagon train.

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 century.


American Experience: Transcontinental Railroad
The History Channel

See Also

Peter Cooper
Mexican-American War
California Gold Rush
Comstock Lode
Gadsden Purchase
Leland Stanford
President Abraham Lincoln
Robert E. Lee
Civil War
President Ulysses S. Grant

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The Robinson Library >> Railroads and Rapid Transit Systems

This page was last updated on December 07, 2018.