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Building the Transcontinental Railroad Next
Digital History ID 3147


Along with the development of the atomic bomb, the digging of the Panama Canal, and landing the first men on the moon, the construction of a transcontinental railroad was one of the United States' greatest technological achievements. Railroad track had to be laid over 2,000 miles of rugged terrain, including mountains of solid granite.

Before the transcontinental railroad was completed, travel overland by stagecoach cost $1,000, took five or six months, and involved crossing rugged mountains and arid desert. The alternatives were to travel by sea around the tip of South America, a distance of 18,000 miles; or to cross the Isthmus of Panama, then travel north by ship to California. Each route took months and was dangerous and expensive. The transcontinental railroad would make it possible to complete the trip in five days at a cost of $150 for a first-class sleeper.

The first spikes were driven in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War. Two companies competed to lay as much track as possible. The Central Pacific built east from Sacramento, Calif., while the Union Pacific built west from Omaha, Neb. The government gave the companies rights of way of 200 feet on each side of the track and financial aid of $16,000 to $48,000 for each mile of track laid.

At first, the Union Pacific, which had flat terrain, raced ahead. The Central Pacific had to run train track through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Working three shifts around the clock, Chinese immigrants hand drilled holes into which they packed black powder and later nitroglycerine. The progress in the tunnels through the mountains was agonizingly slow, an average of a foot a day.

Stung by the Union Pacific's record of eight miles of track laid in a single day, the Central Pacific concocted a plan to lay 10 miles in a day. Eight Irish tracklayers put down 3,520 rails, while other workers laid 25,800 ties and drove 28,160 spikes in a single day. On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah, a golden spike was hammered into the final tie.

The transcontinental railroad was built in six years almost entirely by hand. Workers drove spikes into mountains, filled the holes with black powder, and blasted through the rock inch by inch. Handcarts moved the drift from cuts to fills. Bridges, including one 700 feet long and 126 feet in the air, had to be constructed to ford streams. Thousands of workers, including Irish and German immigrants, former Union and Confederate soldiers, freed slaves, and especially Chinese immigrants played a part in the construction. Chinese laborers first went to work for the Central Pacific as it began crossing California's Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1865. At one point, 8,000 of the 10,000 men toiling for the Central Pacific were Chinese. At one point, Chinese workers were lowered in hand-woven reed baskets to drill blasting holes in the rock. They placed explosives in each hole, lit the fuses, and were, hopefully, pulled up before the powder was detonated. Explosions, freezing temperatures, and avalanches in the High Sierras killed hundreds. When Chinese workers struck for higher pay, a Central Pacific executive withheld their food supplies until they agreed to go back to work.

An English-Chinese phrase book from 1867 translated the following phrases into Chinese:

Can you get me a good boy? He wants $8 a month? He ought to be satisfied with $6.... Come at 7 every morning. Go home at 8 every night. Light the fire. Sweep the rooms. Wash the clothes. Wash the windows. Sweep the stairs. Trim the lamps. I want to cut his wages.

Many of the railroad's builders viewed the Plains Indians as obstacles to be removed. General William Tecumseh Sherman wrote in 1867: "The more we can kill this year, the less will have to be killed the next year, for the more I see of these Indians the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers."

Construction of the railroad provided many opportunities for financial chicanery, corruption, graft, and bribery. The greatest financial scandal of the 19th century grew out of the railroad's construction. The president of the Union Pacific helped found a construction company, called Credit Mobilier, which allowed investors, including several members of Congress, to grant lucrative construction contracts to themselves, while nearly bankrupting the railroad.

The railroad had profound effects on American life. New phrases entered the American vocabulary such as "time's up," "time's a wasting," and "the train is leaving the station." It also led to the division of the nation into four standard time zones. In addition, the railroads founded many of the towns on the Great Plains on land grants they were awarded by the federal government, and then sold the land to settlers.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad changed the nation. Western agricultural products, coal, and minerals could move freely to the east coast. Just as the Civil War united North and South, the transcontinental railroad united East and West. Passengers and freight could reach the west coast in a matter of days instead of months at one-tenth the cost. Settlers rushed into what was previously considered a desert wasteland. The 1890 Census would declare that the American frontier had disappeared. The railroad was a major cause.

Equally important, the success of the transcontinental railroad encouraged an American faith that with money, determination, and organization anything can be accomplished. The construction of railroad demonstrated the effectiveness of complex military-like organization and assembly-line processes.



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