|Building the Transcontinental Railroad
|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
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
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 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.
Copyright 2021 Digital History