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The Transcontinental Railroad

Written by: John Steele Gordon, Independent Historian

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes and effects of the settlement of the West from 1877 to 1898

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative alongside The Brooklyn Bridge Narrative to highlight the infrastructure innovations of the Gilded Age.

When California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850, it was separated from the settled parts of the country by some 1,500 miles. Ships sailing around Cape Horn from the East Coast, even the fastest of the new clipper ships, required at least three months to reach San Francisco. Making the trip via Panama took 40 days. The overland route took three months.

Thus, the commercial and communications ties between California and the rest of the country were tenuous at best. With the new state’s population rapidly increasing and its gold production soaring, it became a priority of the federal government to improve those ties as quickly as possible.

The Pony Express, which began in 1860 as a series of riders who carried the mail, reduced the communication time to about ten days, although at first it charged $5.00 a week’s wage for an unskilled worker to deliver a half-ounce letter. Two years later, a telegraph line was strung to California, putting the Pony Express out of business.

But although communications were important, what was needed, everyone realized, was a transcontinental railroad to carry passengers and freight quickly, safely, and cheaply across the vast unsettled parts of the country and to tie California firmly to the Union.

Although a transcontinental railroad had been proposed as early as 1832, it was only in the 1850s that it was given serious consideration. In 1853, thinking a southern route might be the easiest to build, the government bought a large tract of land from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase, in what is now southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico. That route was later completed in 1881 by the Southern Pacific Railroad. A northern route through Montana was also considered, but it was thought that snow and the terrain would be a problem. That route was later completed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883.

Southern states pushed for the southern route, but after they rebelled in 1861, Congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. This called for a route that followed the Platte River in Nebraska and then used the South Pass in southwest Wyoming (already used by the California, Oregon, and Mormon Trails) to cross the Rocky Mountains. The eastern terminal was to be Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, and the western terminal Sacramento.

Two companies were founded to build the line. The Central Pacific was to head east from Sacramento and was formed by four California entrepreneurs: Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins. The Union Pacific Railroad was to build west from the Missouri River. This railroad was dominated, at first, by investor Thomas C. Durant.

A poster of a map of the United States shows railway routes and connections in the West. The routes stretch from Kansas and Nebraska to California, Montana, and Washington. The poster includes an advertisement that reads

The Union Pacific Railroad was considered the short, quick, and safe line to all points west.

Earlier American railroads had been built through settled areas whose inhabitants began using them immediately, bringing in revenue even before the railways were completed. But the transcontinental railroad had to be built through largely unsettled country, areas where there were no customers. This greatly complicated the financing of both lines.

The federal government issued bonds, at 6 percent interest, and agreed to pay the two railroads $16,000 for each mile of track laid on level ground, $32,000 for track laid in foothills, and $48,000 per mile for track laid in mountainous areas. To encourage investment in the stock and bonds issued by the railroads, the federal government also granted vast areas of land to the railroads along the rights of way. These included 200 feet on each side of the tracks and sections ten miles square (6,400 acres) alternating on each side of the tracks, creating a checkerboard pattern.

The map shows alternating red and white squares that each represent one square mile. There is a railroad track drawn straight through the checkerboard pattern, with twenty miles of land on either side of the railroad.

The Railroad Land Grant checkerboard: an example of a railroad land grant. The original idea was that presence of the railroad would increase the value of all adjoining land. Much of the land retained by the federal government was given to settlers through the Homestead Act of 1862.

To build the railroads, the management of both lines established construction companies owned by their board members, who profited handsomely by paying themselves generously. The Union Pacific construction company, Crédit Mobilier, was later implicated in one of the nineteenth century’s biggest political scandals. Crédit Mobilier bribed many members of Congress by giving them stock in return for laws and regulatory policies favorable to the company.

The Central Pacific began construction on January 8, 1863. Because California then had almost no manufacturing, all the rails, rolling stock, and heavy construction equipment had to be shipped from East Coast ports, either around Cape Horn or overland via Panama. The railroad was able to recruit British and Canadian engineers with experience in road and bridge construction. But finding manual laborers was a big problem because most workers in California were miners or farmers. So the Central Pacific hired Chinese immigrant laborers and was soon recruiting them in China itself. They were paid $30 a month, which was a good wage at the time.

The Central Pacific Railroad had to take on the tough part of its 690-mile route first, ascending from Sacramento at 40 feet above sea level to the top of the Donner Pass at 7,000 feet in only about 90 miles. Regardless, the grade exceeded a steep 2 percent only over a three-mile section. Crews were sent ahead to work on the challenging bridges and tunnels. There were 11 tunnels through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, seven of them in just three miles, near the Donner summit. The engineers drilled a 125-foot shaft down to the middle point of the summit tunnel to allow work on four faces to proceed simultaneously. The spoil, the dirt and rock removed from the tunnel, was lifted up the shaft using an old locomotive steam engine for power.

A photograph of a train on a trestle bridge over a valley.

The rough terrain of the mountains required the laying of complex tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad.

In five years, the Central Pacific had advanced only 132 miles, to Reno, Nevada. But after that it was able to move quickly across the rest of the state and into Utah, reaching Promontory Point, 590 miles east of Reno, in just one year.

The Union Pacific did not begin construction until July 1865, due to difficulties it encountered in raising funds and finding labor. Only after the Civil War had ended could engineers, including former members of the Army Corps of Engineers, be found. Laborers on this railroad included men discharged from the Union Army and Irish immigrants. The latter faced a great deal of discrimination.

Scouting parties went ahead to determine the exact route. Behind them teams prepared the roadbed, and then the tracks were laid. In 1865, the Union Pacific had managed to lay only about 40 miles of track along with ten miles of roadbed. But the next year, with former Union general Jack Casement as the new chief engineer, the pace increased markedly. Casement fitted up several rail cars as dormitories for the workers and another as a galley car to prepare meals. He even had a herd of cattle driven along as the road crept westward to supply fresh meat, and many buffalo were slaughtered by hunting parties. Construction picked up in 1866 and often completed a mile per day.

The route that ran along the North Platte River and then through the South Pass had been ideal for wagon trains, which needed to be in river valleys for water and pasturage, and it was the lowest pass possible through the mountains. But the route of the emigrant trails was not as good for the railroad. It was farther from rapidly growing Denver, Colorado, and 250 miles longer than a path that used the Evans Pass, named for James Evans, a surveyor and engineer for the railroad.

The line reached Cheyenne, in what is now Wyoming, in December 1867, having advanced 270 miles that year. The next spring it intended to push through the Evans Pass at 8,247 feet, the highest point on the transcontinental railroad.

Many serious engineering challenges had to be met and overcome, including the Dale Creek Bridge in Wyoming, 650 feet long and 125 feet above the creek. The approaches to the bridge had to be cut through granite for nearly a mile on each end. The bridge timbers were prefabricated in Chicago and then shipped on the railroad to the site.

By December 1868, the Union Pacific had laid an additional 360 miles of track, including across the Green River, the last major waterway on the route. When the line crossed into the Utah Territory, it hired many Mormon workers to complete the line (and tried to cheat them on their wages).

Finally, on May 10, 1869, the two railroads met at Promontory Summit, Utah, and a golden spike was driven in by Leland Stanford to commemorate one of the great engineering feats of the nineteenth century. (The spike was quickly removed and is on display at Stanford University, named for the railroad magnate’s son.)

A crowd of people stands around and on a train that is disconnected and split in two. In the gap between the two train cars, two men shake hands.

The Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Summit, Utah, joined the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, completing the Transcontinental Railroad in May 1869. The Chinese workers who were present that day were deliberately excluded from the photograph.

California was now firmly tied to the Union and the world had shrunk markedly. Only four years later, Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days. In the novel, Phineas Fogg boards a transcontinental train from San Francisco to New York, demonstrating how the railroad had captured the popular imagination. Thanks to the transcontinental railroad (and the Suez Canal, also completed in 1869), the time frame imagined by Verne was now possible.

The building of the railroad network in the United States contributed to the growth of a nationwide market economy in which goods were transported more quickly and cheaply, helping improve the quality of life by raising incomes and reducing prices. Improved transportation linked sources of raw materials, farms, factories, and consumers from different parts of the country, and a new national economy facilitated the rise of big business and smaller business for local, niche markets.

Review Questions

1. The most significant reason for building the transcontinental railroad was

  1. to complete a very profitable project
  2. to increase settlement in the trans-Mississippi west
  3. to tie California more closely to the rest of the country
  4. to strengthen the military for the entire United States

2. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in what state/territory?

  1. Montana
  2. Utah
  3. Wyoming
  4. New Mexico

3. Along with the Chinese, another group of immigrants who helped to build the railroad and suffered discrimination was the

  1. Germans
  2. Eastern European Jews
  3. Mexicans
  4. Irish

4. The main reason for the Gadsden Purchase was to provide

  1. a faster route to California by way of Conestoga wagon
  2. a southern route for the transcontinental railroad
  3. a relatively easier route for the Pony Express
  4. a safe trail for migrants to California

5. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 was easily passed by Congress as a result of the

  1. encouragement of investments by California entrepreneurs
  2. fact that southern states had seceded from the Union
  3. strong support of President Abraham Lincoln
  4. investment of millions of dollars by the federal government

6. A significant difference between the construction of the transcontinental railroad and that of railroads that already existed in the United States was that the transcontinental railroad was

  1. supported only by private funds
  2. built by union labor
  3. built through sparsely populated areas
  4. owned by the federal government

Free Response Questions

  1. Analyze the reasons for building the transcontinental railroad during the second half of the nineteenth century.
  2. Explain the reasons for the eventual selection of the first route of the transcontinental railroad.

AP Practice Questions

“The centrality of railroads in the expansion and development of the United States was used morally and politically to justify the suspension of the laws of laissez-faire and the direct involvement of both federal and state governments in their construction. Similar arguments had been used to justify the National Road. States were involved in promoting and facilitating rail construction right from the start. The federal government began its participation in 1850 by helping the Illinois Central. The real subsidies began, however . . . in 1862, as a result of the Civil War, during which it began to seem lawful and natural for Washington to be involved in everything.”

A History of the American People, Paul Johnson, 1997

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Which of the following events had the most significant impact on the development described in the excerpt?

  1. Construction of the National Road in Illinois
  2. The admission of California to the Union
  3. Border disputes between California and Mexico
  4. The industrial revolution

2. According to this author, what event made it seem natural and lawful for the federal government to be broadly involved in promoting economic growth?

  1. The need for more trade with foreign countries
  2. The Civil War
  3. The spread of slavery
  4. The Frontier Thesis

“It could neither be surmounted nor doubled, and so they tunneled what looks like a bank-swallow’s hole from a thousand feet below. Powder enough was expended in persuading the iron crags and cliffs to be a thoroughfare to fight half the battles of the Revolution. It was in its time the topmost triumph of engineering nerve and skill in all the world. It stitched the East and the West lovingly together, and who shall say that we are not a United States? . . .

The blows that sent home the spikes of silver and gold securing the last rail in the laurel were repeated by lightning at Washington and San Francisco, in the length of a heart-beat; blow for blow, from the Potomac to the Pacific. Think of echo answering echo through a sweep of more than three thousand miles! All in all, after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it was the most impressive and thoughtful ceremony that ever graced the continent. It was electric with the spirit of the New Era.”

Between the Gates, Benjamin F. Taylor, 1878

Refer to the excerpt provided.

3. What event does the author describe in this passage?

  1. Inauguration of the Pony Express connecting east and west
  2. Joining of two railroads to complete the first transcontinental railroad
  3. Christening of a riverboat on the Potomac River, celebrated with fireworks
  4. Completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, opening the west to Asian immigrants

4. According to this author, the only event in American history more exciting than the ceremony he describes was

  1. the colonies’ commitment to break away from England
  2. the completion of the Constitution
  3. the celebration of victory after the Revolutionary War
  4. the New Era that began following the Civil War

Primary Sources

“East and West. Completion of the Great Line Spanning the Continent.” New York Times. May 10, 1869.

Williams, Henry T. The Pacific Tourist. New York: H.T. Williams, 1876.

Suggested Resources

Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

Gordon, John Steele. An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power. New York: Harper, 2004.

Klein, Maury. Union Pacific: Birth of a Railroad, 1862-1893. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. 1987.

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