Digital History
East and West: Completion of the Great Line Spanning the Continent
Digital History ID 1094


Annotation: In 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, Congress authorized the most ambitious project that the country had ever contemplated: construction of a transcontinental railroad. The price tag was immense: $136 million, more than twice the federal budget in 1861. The challenge was enormous; 1,800 miles across arid plains and desert and the rugged granite walls of the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains.

Two companies undertook the actual construction in return for land grants and financial subsidies worth from $16,000 to $48,000 a mile. The Union Pacific began laying track westward from Omaha, Nebraska. The Central Pacific lay track eastward from Sacramento, California. Which ever company laid the most track would receive the largest federal subsidy.

The Union Pacific's task was easier; two-thirds of its track was laid across plains. The Central Pacific, in contrast, had to carve out a rail bed across the Sierra Nevadas. The first year, it lay 31 miles of track; after two years, it had only put down 50 miles.

The Central Pacific also faced an acute labor shortage. In the winter of 1864, the company had only 600 laborers at work, a small fraction of the 5,000 for which it had advertised. And these workers were unreliable: "Some would stay until pay day, get a little money, get drunk and clear out," a superintendent said.

In February, 1865, the Central Pacific decided to try a new labor pool. Charles Crocker, chief of construction persuaded his company to employ Chinese immigrants, arguing that the people who build the Great Wall of China and invented gunpowder could certainly build a railroad.

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, civil turmoil and poverty had led many Chinese to emigrate to California, the "Golden Mountain." As early as 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants in California. Most came from China's southeastern coast. The overwhelming majority were married men who planned to return to China. In California, the immigrants established support networks, based on family ties and place of origin, and found work in agriculture, mines, domestic service, and increasingly in railroad construction.

The Central Pacific's Chinese immigrant workers received just $26-$35 a month for a 12-hour day, 6-day work week and had to provide their own food and tents. White workers received about $35 a month and were furnished with food and shelter. Incredibly, the Chinese immigrant workers saved as much as $20 a month which many eventually used to buy land. These workers quickly earned a reputation as tireless and extraordinarily reliable workers--"quiet, peaceable, patient, industrious, and economical." Within two years, 12,000 of the Central Pacific railroad's 13,500 employees were Chinese immigrants.

The work was grueling, performed almost entirely by hand. With pickaxes, hammers, and crowbars, workers chipped out railbeds. Dirt and rock were carried away in baskets and carts. Tree stumps had to be rooted out, tracks laid, spikes driven, and aqua ducts and tunnels constructed.

To carve out a rail bed from ridges that jutted up 2,000 over the valley below, Chinese immigrants were lowered in baskets to hammer at solid shale and granite and insert dynamite. During the winter of 1865-1866, when the railroad carved passages through the summit of the Sierra Nevadas, 3,000 lived and worked in tunnels dug beneath 40-foot snowdrifts. Accidents, avalanches, and explosions left as estimated 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers dead.

Despite their heroic labors, California's Chinese immigrants became the objects of discriminatory laws and racial violence. California barred these immigrants from appearing as witnesses in court, prohibited them from voting or becoming naturalized citizens, and placed their children in segregated school. The state imposed special taxes on "foreign" miners and Chinese fishermen.

Document: East and West: Completion of the Great Line Spanning the Continent

The Closing Work and Ceremonies at Promontory Summit

The News Flashed by Telegraph Simultaneously Over the Country

Rejoicings of the Metropolis at the Completion of the Enterprise

Celebrations in Chicago, Philadelphia and Other Cites

The Work Accomplished- Ceremonies at Promontory Summit Special Dispatch to the New York Times


End of the Contest Over the Tammany Tax Levies

A Reduction of About Two Millions at Length Made

Final Adjournment of the Legislators at Midnight romontory, Utah, Monday, May 10 -- The long-looked-for moment has arrived. The construction of the Pacific Railroad is un fait accompli. The inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard and the dwellers on the Pacific slopes are henceforth emphatically one people. Your correspondent is writing on Promontory Summit amid the deafening shouts of the multitude, with the tick, tick, of the telegraph close to his ear. The proceedings of the day are:

1. Prayer by Rev. Dr. Todd, of Pittsfield, asking the favor of heaven upon the enterprise.

2. Laying of two rails, one opposite the other- one for the Union Pacific Railroad, and one for the Central Pacific Railroad.

3. Presentation of spikes to the two Companies - on the part of California by Dr. Harkness, on the part of Nevada by Hon. F. A. Fritle, and on the part of Arizona by Governor Safford.

4. Response by Governor Stanford on the part of the Central Pacific Railroad

5. Response by General G. M. Dodge on the part of the Union Pacific Railroad

6. Driving of the last spikes by the two Companies; telegraph to be attached to the spike of the Central Pacific Company, and the last blow to announce to the world by telegraph the completion of the Pacific Railroad.

7. Telegram to the President of the United States

8. Telegram to the Associated Press

Announcement in Washington of the Completion of the Road- Scene in the Telegraph Office

Special Dispatch to the New York Times

Washington, Monday, May 10 -- The completion of the Pacific Railroad has monopolized public attention here to-day to the exclusion of everything else. The feeling is one of hearty rejoicing at the completion of this great work. There were no public observances, but the arrangements made by the telegraph company to announce the completion of the road simultaneously with the driving of the last spike were perfect. At 2:20 this afternoon, Washington time, all the telegraph offices in the country were notified by the Omaha telegraph office to be ready to receive the signals corresponding to the blows of the hammer that drove the last spike in the last rail that united New York and San Francisco with a band of iron. Accordingly Mr. Tinker, Manager of the Western Union Telegraph Office in this city, placed a magnetic bell-sounder in the public office of that Company, corner Fourteenth-street and the avenue, connected the same with the main lines, and notified the various offices that he was ready. New-Orleans instantly responded, the answer being read from the bell-taps. New-York did the same. At 2:27 P.M., Promontory Point, 2,400 miles west of Washington, said to the people congregated in the various telegraph offices:

"Almost ready. Hats off; prayer is being offered."

A silence for the prayer ensued. At 2:40 the bell tapped again, and the office at the Point said:

"We have got done praying. The spike is about to be presented."

Chicago replied:

"We understand; all are ready in the East."

Promontory Point: "All ready now; the spike will be driven. The signal will be three dots for the commencement of the blows."

For a moment the instrument was silent; then the hammer of the magnet tapped the bell. "One, two, three," the signal; another pause of a few seconds, and the lightning came flashing eastward, vibrating over 2,400 miles between the junction of the two roads and Washington, and the blows of the hammer upon the spike were measured instantly in telegraphic accents on the bell here. At 2:47 P.M., Promontory Point gave the signal, "Done," and the Continent was spanned with iron. The same ceremony was observed at the military telegraph office in the War Department, where were present Secretary Rawlings, Generals Sherman, Townsend, and others. The President was unavoidably kept away by an engagement. The bell-taps here, too, repeated the blows of the hammer, and the completion of the great enterprise was known here before the echoes of the last stroke had died out of the ears of those present at the ceremonies on Promontory Point.

Rejoicing in This City - The Booming of Cannon and Chiming of Bells- Magnificent Thanksgiving Services at Old Trinity -- Address by Rev. Dr. Vinton -- Congratulatory Dispatches to Man Francisco by Mayor Hall and the Chamber of Commerce

It was apparent everywhere throughout the City yesterday that an event of more than usual importance was taking place, and that there was an evident disposition among the people to be jubilant. Especially was this the case in Wall-street, and in Printing-house-square and its vicinity. Flags were displayed on the City Hall, on all the newspaper offices, and on the prominent hotels. Every countenance seemed to bear a look of supreme satisfaction, and all were apparently awaiting with anticipations of delight the receipt of most welcome news. At length, soon after the sun had left the zenith, it came -- the last rail of the road connecting our opposite ocean-bound shores was laid; the last spike (a gold one, by the bye) was driven; and thereupon there was booming cannon, peals from Trinity chimes, and general rejoicing over the completion of the great enterprise, in the success of which not only this country, but the whole cilized world, is directly interested. According to the announcement made in yesterday's Times, there were special services in Old Trinity, and particular notice of the event was taken by the Chamber of Commerce. At 10 o'clock A.M., the Special Committee appointed by the Chamber at its last meeting proceeded to the office of the Western Union Telegraph Company, where Mr. L.B. Ruggles, its Chairman on behalf of the organization, handed to the operator, to be sent to San Francisco, the following:

Congratulatory Dispatch

From the Chamber of Commerce of New-York to the Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco, on the Completion of the Pacific Railway:

New York, May 10, 1869, 10 A.M. -- The Chamber of Commerce of the State of New-York desires to unite at noon to-day with the Chamber of Commerce of San Francisco, in grateful thanksgiving to Almighty God, the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, on the completion of the continental line of railway, spanning the territory of the American Union and commercially uniting two great oceans of the globe; and in solemn recognition of the manifold benefits and blessings, industrial and commercial, moral and political, national and international, of this great avenue of intercommunication.

The new highway thus opened to man will not only develop the resources, extend the commerce, increase the power, exalt the dignity and perpetuate the unity of our Republic, but in its broader relations, as the segment of a world-embracing circle, directly connecting the nations of Europe with those of Asia, will materially facilitate the enlightened and advancing civilization of our age. By order of the Chamber.

Samuel B. Ruggles, William E. Dodge, George Opdyke, A. A. Low, Special Committee

In a few minutes' time the lightning carried the congratulations of the Chamber across the Continent.

Up to the hour of going to press, no response had been received to the telegram sent to San Francisco by the Chamber of Commerce of this City.

At the City Hall

The flags on the City Hall were hoisted at an early hour, and preparations were made to fire one hundred guns as soon as the announcement was received that the last rail had been laid and the great work completed. At 3:16 P.M. the following dispatch was handed to the Mayor:

Mayor Brown, of San Francisco, to Mayor Hall

Promontory Point, May 10, 1869

To Hon. A. Oakey Hall, Mayor of New-York:

The last spike in the rail connecting the Atlantic and Pacific by railroad has been driven at 3:10 P.M., (New-York time.) A. S. Brown, Mayor.

In a few minutes after the receipt of Mayor Brown's dispatch Mayor Hall sent the following:

Mayor Hall's Reply

Executive Department, City Hall, New-York, May 10, 1869

To the Mayor of San Francisco:

New-York rejoiced when almost half a century ago, by the completion of the Erie Canal, the silver chain of Western inland seas was riveted upon the Atlantic Ocean. The metropolis of America exults to-day, because by the completion of the Pacific Railway two extremities and coasts of an immense continent are commercially welded together. Apart from the relations of this grand event to Christianity, political economy, civilization and patriotism. It justifies the metropolis in the pardonably selfish expectation to soon become the commercial exchange of the world. Her newspapers, which have so largely contributed to this day's result, must soon accustom our citizens to phrases like this one: "The Asiatic freight train has arrived on time." So our flags are now flying, our cannon now booming, and in Old Trinity, at the head of Wall-street, a te deum imparts thankful harmonies to the busy hum about her church walls. Can it, then, be necessary, by mere words, to tender you fuller magnetic sympathy [text unreadable] congratulations to you, phrases seem inadequate to foretell the full fruition to your golden-gated city of enterprise of this beginning of railway intercommunication. Therefore let this 10th of May pass into the annals of San Francisco, New-York, and of every hamlet, village, town and city along the new highway, as an anniversary day.

A. Oakey Hall Mayor of New-York

The Mayor also gave orders to fire 100 guns in the City Hall Park in honor of the event, and Mr. Roome having kept guns and ammunition in readiness, the first discharge was fired within five minutes after the receipt of the dispatch. A large number of persons congregated in the Park to listen to the booming of the cannon, which told of another great enterprise completed, and to congratulate each other on the event. Flags were hoisted on the Astor House and most of the private buildings so soon as the news was made public.

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