First Transcontinental Railroad

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Poster announcing railroad's opening
Poster announcing railroad's opening

The First Transcontinental Railroad in the United States was built across North America in the 1860s, linking the railway network of the eastern U.S. with California on the Pacific coast. Finished on May 10, 1869 at the famous Golden spike event at Promontory Summit, Utah, it created a nationwide mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West, catalyzing the transition from the wagon trains of previous decades to a modern transportation system. Authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 and heavily backed by the federal government, it was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line and was one of the crowning achievements of the presidency of Abraham Lincoln, completed four years after his death. The building of the railway required enormous feats of engineering and labor in the crossing of plains and high mountains by the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, the two federally chartered enterprises that built the line westward and eastward respectively. The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind the Union together during the strife of the American Civil War. It substantially accelerated the populating of the West by white homesteaders, led to rapid cultivation of new farm lands, while contributing to the decline of the Native Americans in these regions. Much of the original right-of-way is still in use today and owned by the modern Union Pacific, which is descended from both of the original railroads. The Central Pacific and the Southern Pacific Railroad combined operations in 1870 and formally merged in 1885; the Union Pacific originally bought the Southern Pacific in 1901 and was forced to divest it in 1913, but finally took it over for good in 1996.



In 1859 the railway network of the eastern United States reached as far west as Council Bluffs, Iowa, across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. To connect the rail network with the Pacific coast, the Central Pacific Railroad was built from Sacramento, California eastward and the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha westward, until they met.

It was considered by many to be the greatest technological feat of the 19th century. It served as a vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the late-19th century United States. The establishment of this transcontinental railroad would quickly end the romantic, yet far slower and more dangerous Pony Express and stagecoach lines. In addition, the march of "Manifest Destiny" and the establishment of the so-called "Iron Horse" across Native American land would greatly accelerate the demise of Great Plains Indian culture.

This line was not the first railroad to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific; that honor goes to the Panama Railway, a 48 mile (77 km) long line across Panama, completed in 1855. Other transcontinental railroads followed: The Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885; the Trans-Siberian Railroad was completed 1905; the first trans-Australian rail line was completed in 1917; the first north-south trans-Australia line was completed in 2003.


Route of the first American transcontinental railroad from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska
Route of the first American transcontinental railroad from Sacramento, California to Omaha, Nebraska
The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869.  Photograph by Charles Roscoe Savage.
The ceremony for the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869. Photograph by Charles Roscoe Savage.

The Central Pacific laid 690 miles (1110 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, California, and continuing through California (Newcastle and Truckee), Nevada (Reno, Wadsworth, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Elko, Humboldt-Wells), and connecting with the Union Pacific line at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory. Later, the route was extended to the Alameda Terminal in Alameda, California.

The Union Pacific laid 1087 miles (1749 km) of track, starting in Omaha, Nebraska, and continuing through Nebraska (Elkhorn, Grand Island, North Platte, Ogallala), Julesburg in the Colorado Territory, Sidney, Nebraska, the Wyoming Territory (Cheyenne, Laramie, Green River, Evanston), the Utah Territory (Ogden, Brigham City, Corinne), and connecting with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit.


Although Theodore Judah is considered to be the "father" of the First Transcontinental Railroad, Asa Whitney made what some consider the first concerted attempt to get the government to seriously consider such a project. He was not the first or only man of his time to conceive of a railroad running across the frontier from the Great Lakes to the Pacific coast, but he was the first to lead a team of eight men in June 1845 along the proposed route.

Whitney's team assessed available resources, such as stone and wood, attempted to determine how many bridges, cuts and tunnels that would be necessary, and to find out how much arable land there was. Additionally, Whitney traveled widely to solicit support from businessmen and politicians, printed maps and pamphlets, and submitted several carefully considered proposals to Congress, all at his own expense. Unfortunately for Whitney, the Mexican-American War obstructed his efforts over a period of six years.

Theodore Judah was perhaps no more committed than Whitney, but he had advantages and opportunities that Whitney never got. He became the chief engineer for the newly-formed Sacramento Valley Railroad in 1852, surveyed the route for the road, and oversaw its construction. The job was an especially juicy plum to Judah, because he was convinced that, from Sacramento, a rail line could be laid over the Sierra Nevada mountains, and he wanted to be the engineer to do it.

Interest payments bankrupted the Sacramento Valley Railroad, though, so Judah had to find another way to build his road. He traveled to Washington, D.C. in 1856, hoping to learn how to lobby Congress for his project. He wrote a 13,000-word proposal in support of a Pacific railroad, had it printed, and distributed it to Cabinent secretaries, congressmen, and other influential people.

Judah was chosen to be the accredited lobbyist for the Pacific Railroad Convention, first assembled in San Francisco in September 1859. Although factional bickering threatened to derail the Convention proceedings, Judah rallied them to adopt his plan to survey, finance, and engineer the road. Judah returned to Washington in December 1859, where he was given an office in the Capitol building, an audience with President James Buchanan, and represented the Convention before Congress. Iowa Representative Samuel Curtis introduced a bill in February 1860, which called for finances and land grants to support the Pacific road, but it was not passed by the House until December that year, and came to nothing when it could not be reconciled with rival bills.

Judah returned to California in 1860, and split his time between raising enough money to live, and crossing and re-crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains in search of a pass suitable for a railroad, convinced that if he found it, no one could deny the worth of his project. That summer, a local miner, Daniel Strong, had surveyed a route over the Sierras for a wagon road, a route he realized would also suit a railroad. He described his discovery in a letter to Judah, and together they formed an association to solicit subscriptions from local merchants and businessmen to support their paper railroad.

Collis Huntington, a prosperous Sacramento hardware merchant, heard Theodore Judah lecture at the St. Charles Hotel in November 1860, and invited Judah to his office to hear his proposal in detail. Huntington was savvy enough to realize the importance of a transcontinental railroad to business. He also knew that selling subscriptions door to door was no way to raise money for such a grand enterprise, so he found four partners to invest $1500 each and form a board of directors: Mark Hopkins, his business partner; James Bailey, a jeweler; Leland Stanford, a grocer and the future governor of California; and Charles Crocker, a dry-goods merchant.

From January or February 1861 until July, the party of ten led by Judah and Strong surveyed the route for the railroad over the Sierra Nevada, through Clipper Gap, Emigrant Gap, Donner Pass, and south to Truckee. While he charted the road's line, Leland Stanford met with President Abraham Lincoln in Washington, and a special congressional session was convened, where the Pacific Railway bill was reintroduced by Curtis. Congress was more concerned with issues surround the Civil War, however, and the bill was not passed until the next session.

Judah traveled to Washington in October 1861 to lobby for the Pacific Railroad Act with Aaron Sargent, once a newspaper editor and one of Judah's strongest supporters, now a freshman Congressman assigned to the House Pacific Railroad Committee. Judah was named the committee's clerk. While they helped push the Pacific Railroad bill through committee, Stanford and Crocker traveled to Nevada to secure a franchise from the Nevada legislature to build the Central Pacific through the territory.

The Pacific Railroad bill passed the House of Representatives on May 6, 1862, and the Senate on June 20. Lincoln signed it into law on July 1. The act called for several companies to build the railroad: from the west, the Central Pacific and the Nevada Central; and from the east, the newly-chartered Union Pacific. Each was required to build only 50 miles (80 km) in the first year; after that, only 50 miles (80 km) more were required each year. Besides land grants along the right-of-way, each railroad was subsidized $16,000 per mile ($9.94/m) built over an easy grade, $32,000/mile ($19.88/m) in the high plains, and $48,000 /mile ($29.83/m) in the mountains. The race was on to see which railroad company could build the longest section of track.

Chinese railroad workers in the snow
Chinese railroad workers in the snow

Six months later, on January 8, 1863, Governor Leland Stanford ceremoniously broke ground in Sacramento, California to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad. The Central Pacific made great progress along the Sacramento Valley, however construction was later slowed; first by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, then by the mountains themselves and most importantly by winter snow storms. As a result, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire immigrant laborers (many of whom were Chinese). The immigrants seemed to be more willing to tolerate the horrible conditions, and progress continued. Unfortunately, the increasing necessity for tunneling then began to slow progess of the line yet again. To combat this, Central Pacific began to use the newly-invented and very unstable nitroglycerin explosives—which accelerated both the rate of construction and the mortality of the laborers. Appalled by the losses, the Central Pacific began to use less volatile explosives. Construction began again in earnest.

In the east, the progress started in Omaha, Nebraska by the Union Pacific Railroad, proceeded very quickly due to the open terrain of the Great Plains. However, they too would soon become subject to slowdowns as they entered Indian-held lands. The Native Americans living there saw the addition of the railroad as a violation of their treaties with the United States. War parties began to raid the moving labor camps that followed the progress of the line. Union Pacific responded by increasing security and by hiring marksmen to kill American Bison—which were both a physical threat to trains, and the primary food source for many of the Plains Indians. The Native Americans then began killing laborers when they realized that the so-called "Iron Horse" threatened their existence. Security measures were further strengthened, and progress on the railroad continued.

The Jupiter, which carried Leland Stanford, one of the "big four" owners of the Central Pacific, and other railway officials to the Golden Spike Ceremony. Notice the Native Americans on the hill overlooking the train.
The Jupiter, which carried Leland Stanford, one of the "big four" owners of the Central Pacific, and other railway officials to the Golden Spike Ceremony. Notice the Native Americans on the hill overlooking the train.

Because of the nature of the way money was given to the companies building the railroad, they were sometimes known to sabotage each other's railroads, to claim that land as their own. As well, when they first came close to meeting, they changed paths to be nearly parallel, so that each company could claim subsidies from the government over the same plot of land. Fed up with the fighting, Congress eventually declared where and when the railways should meet.

Six years after the groundbreaking, laborers of the Central Pacific Railroad from the west and the Union Pacific Railroad from the east, met at Promontory Summit, Utah. It was here on May 10, 1869, that Stanford drove the golden spike (which is now located at the Stanford University Museum [1]) that symbolized the completion of the transcontinental railroad. As soon as the ceremonial spike had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a telegraph message was transmitted to both the East Coast and West Coast that simply read, "Done." The country erupted in celebration upon receipt of this message (which was the first coast-to-coast broadcast of a media event in the United States). Complete travel from coast to coast was reduced from six or more months to just one week.

Between 1865 and 1869, the Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles (1749 km) and the Central Pacific 690 miles (1110 km) of track. The years immediately following the construction of the railway were years of astounding growth for the United States, largely due to the speed and ease of travel this railroad provided. For example, on June 4, 1876 an express train called the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco, California via the First Transcontinental Railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it left from New York City. Only ten years before the same journey would have taken months overland and weeks on ship.


Railroad workers
Railroad workers

The majority of the Union Pacific track was built by Irish laborers, veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies, and Mormons who wished to see the railroad pass through Ogden and Salt Lake City, Utah. Mostly Chinese (coolies) worked for the Central Pacific even though at first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work. The men worked for an average of between one and three dollars a day.

Current passenger service

Amtrak runs a daily service from Emeryville, California to Chicago, Illinois, the California Zephyr, along this railroad. The trip takes more than 2 days.

In the north of the U.S.A., Amtrak runs a service, the Empire Builder, on another transcontinental railroad, in the south on two more.

See also


  • Ambrose, Stephen E. (2000) Nothing Like It In The World; The men who built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869, Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-0317-8
  • Bain, David Howard (1999) Empire Express; Building the first Transcontinental Railroad, Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-670-80889-X

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