History of the Transcontinental Railroad

For more than 15,000 years most humans never owned a single item fabricated outside their communities. From the period when people were hunters and gatherers up to the time of Agricultural Revolution, people depended on locally produced resources.  Although there was trade across continents, it was slow and laborious, often requiring long transit on land or by ship. In the newly discovered America, this remained true. Communication, transportation, and trade was time-consuming and costly. At the end of the 1700s, times began to change. Man discovered his capacity to create machines that aided in production and transportation: the period of The Industrial Revolution.

The United States’ territorial expansion to the west, under the guiding philosophy of manifest destiny, was a pivotal stage that spurred the country’s industrialization. The difficulty with transporting goods including people, was an excellent catalyst for new ideas. Merchants and politicians trid to solve such a dilemma. Ergo, the creation of a railway system to connect the East and West Coast was established.

The Steam Engine

By the mid-1820 the assembling full railroads in the United States began. On July 4, 1828, Charles Carroll, the last surviving signatory in the Declaration of the Independence, laid the first stone that signaled the beginning of railroad construction in Baltimore. The first railway track was only 13 miles long, but it caused a distinct exhilaration among Americans when it finally operated in 1830. The years 1850-1860 witnessed the rise of railroads along the Eastern coast. By this time almost 9,000 miles of track was placed along the eastern part of Missouri River which connected the Northeast and the mid-Atlantic regions.

Peter Cooper designed and constructed the first American-built steam locomotive to operate on a common-carrier railroad. Cooper worked for Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. This innovation from the horse-powered carriages sparked many privately-owned railroad companies to join the enthusiasm. They began to utilize steam-powered trains to carry commercial freight and ship passengers.

Transcontinental Railway

Asa Whitney, a businessman from New York, introduced the concept of a transcontinental railway that would stretch towards the Pacific. In 1945, he petitioned federal funding of a railroad track that would encompass a single system of locomotive track linking the country by rail. His proposals were denied due to the growing conflict amongst Congress.

Simultaneously, the West Coast was booming in development and needed its own railroad. Acquiring California after the Mexican War and the discovery of gold created a rush in transportation. The increase in people led to a need for better postal services and transportation.

Finally, in 1860, engineer Theodore Judah, laid the groundwork for the Central Pacific Railroad. After years of surveying the impenetrable Sierra Nevada Mountains, Judah discovered an ideal passageway for building a railroad via the Donner Pass. With a concrete plan, he went to Sacramento and recruited four ambitious and willing entrepreneurs.

Judah was able to recruit four major participants known as the Big Four: Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Leland Stanford. Together they formed the Central Pacific Railroad of California on June 28, 1861. On July 1, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Law. A short year later, Judah died from Yellow Fever.

The Race Begins

Under the terms of the law, two companies were commissioned to build the transcontinental railroad. The Central Pacific Railroad Company would start in Sacramento and work its way eastward across the Sierra Nevada. Conversely, the Union Pacific Railroad Company would construct westward beginning from the Missouri River. The meeting point was not stipulated, but each was provided 6,400 acres of land and was offered $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track built. This agreement created a competition between the two railroad builders.

Railroad Stake

In the west, the Central Pacific began constructing in 1863. The majority of its workers were Chinese immigrants, who mostly came during the Gold Rush. They suffered grueling working conditions primarily due to the formidable Sierra Nevada. To pass this mountain range, they blasted through the rock using gunpowder and nitroglycerine to create tunnels. They chiseled their way manually through the snow clad mountains at a slow pace of 8 inches a day.

While Irish laborers and civil war veterans dominated the Union Pacific, who initiated breaking grounds later after the Civil War on 1865. The company, which was led by a Union Army hero General Greenville Dodge, dealt with numerous attacks by the Native American Indians that owned most of the land granted to the railways. The tribes which included Arapaho, Sioux, and Cheyenne showed their resentment by force against the iron horse of the white men. The Union Pacific moved significantly faster throughout the plains than their rival counterpart. Sometimes at the rate of 10, miles per day.

East meets West

Both companies experienced extreme hunger, exhaustion, and dangerous accidents from physical labor. For every steel rail laid, each spike was hammered by hand. The worked perpetuated for almost seven years and ended on May 10, 1869, in Promontory Utah. It was here in Utah that the last two silver and gold spikes were driven, linking the Central and Union Railroads

The whole Nation celebrated the monumental event. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad embodied the most significant innovation of the United States’ Industrial Revolution.

Train Conductor

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