First Transcontinental Railroad

The First Transcontinental Railroad (known originally as the “Pacific Railroad” and later as the “Overland Route“) was a 1,907-mile (3,069 km) contiguous railroad line constructed between 1863 and 1869 across the western United States to connect the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing Eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on the Missouri River. The rail line was built by three private companies: the original Western Pacific Railroad Company between Oakland and Sacramento, California (132 mi or 212 km), the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California eastward from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah Territory (U.T.) (690 mi or 1,110 km), and the Union Pacific Railroad Company westward to Promontory Summit from the road’s statutory Eastern terminus at Council Bluffs on the eastern shore of the Missouri River opposite Omaha, Nebraska (1,085 mi or 1,746 km).[1][2][3]

Opened for through traffic on May 10, 1869 with the ceremonial driving of the “Last Spike” (later often called the “Golden Spike”) with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit,[4][5] the road established a mechanized transcontinental transportation network that revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West by bringing these western states and territories firmly and profitably into the “Union” and making goods and transportation much quicker, cheaper, and more flexible from coast to coast.

Completion of a Pacific railroad was the culmination of a decades-long movement to build such a line beginning as early as 1832 when Dr. Hartwell Carver published an article in the New York Courier & Enquirer advocating the building of a transcontinental railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon, and in 1847 he submitted a Memorial to Congress entitled “Proposal for a Charter to Build a Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific Ocean” seeking a charter to build such a road. In 1856 the Select Committee on the Pacific Railroad and Telegraph of the US House of Representatives began its Report recommending the adoption of a proposed Pacific railroad bill by stating that: “The necessity that now exists for constructing lines of railroad and telegraphic communication between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of this continent is no longer a question for argument; it is conceded by every one. In order to maintain our present position on the Pacific, we must have some more speedy and direct means of intercourse than is at present afforded by the route through the possessions of a foreign power.”[7]

With strong congressional support and under the direction of the Department of War (then run by Jefferson Davis) the Pacific Railroad Surveys (1853–1855) were an extensive series of explorations of the American West to explore possible routes for a transcontinental railroad across North America.

One by-product of these surveys was the purchase of the Gadsden Purchase of the southern parts of the future states of Arizona and New Mexico for $10,000,000 as it was realized the best southern route lie south of the Gila River boundary in a mostly vacant Mexican territory—fortunately Santa Anna, President of Mexico again, needed money to pay for his army and was happy to sell some “desert”. The U.S. Congress was strongly divided on where the eastern terminus of the railroad should be—in a southern or northern city. The Southern Pacific Railroad (later merged with the Central Pacific Railroad) would start construction after the U.S. Civil War was concluded and finish a southern transcontinental route across the U.S. in 1880.

Meanwhile, after years of study, argument, and lobbying by Theodore Judah and others as to where the “eastern” terminus would be and how construction would be funded, the construction and operation of a transcontinental railroad line was authorized by the Pacific Railroad Acts of 1862 and the even more generous act of 1864,[9] during the American Civil War when southern Democratic opposition in the Congress to the central route near the 42nd parallel was absent. Other railroads were also authorized under much the same terms. The Union Pacific Company was incorporated by act of Congress on July 1, 1862, under the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862, which provided for the construction of railroads from the Missouri River to the Pacific.[10]

On June 21, 1861, the “Central Pacific Rail Road of California” was incorporated in California. On October 8, 1864, its name was changed to “Central Pacific Railroad of California” after the 1864 Pacific Railway Act amendment passed that summer. The two newly incorporated railroad companies, the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad, were chosen by Congress to build and operate the first transcontinental railroad (aka the “Pacific Railroad”) from the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California and on to the San Francisco Bay aided by 30-year U.S. government bonds (at 6% interest). Congress, in the middle of a war, set up an ambiguous Union Pacific corporate structure that provided only “spotty” oversight and ambiguous corporate leadership—it was often unclear who was in charge.

In addition to government bonds, a 400-foot (120 m) right-of-way corridor (along with additional lands needed for all sidings, stations, rail yards, maintenance stations,) etc. on which to build the railroad were made by the Congress. Extensive land grants of alternate sections (one section is one square mile) of government-owned lands along the tracks for 10 miles (16 km) on both sides of the track — 6,400 acres (2,600 ha) per mile (1.6 km) of track — were also granted to be used and/or sold by the companies. Grants were not allowed or given in cities or at rivers or on non-government property. While some of this land had potentially exploitable minerals, was good farm or forest land, and quite valuable, much of it was essentially valueless desert. Provisions in the Pacific Railroad Acts were made for the telegraph companies, who had just completed the First Transcontinental Telegraph in 1861, to combine their lines with the Railroad’s telegraph lines as they were built. Railroad-allocated land not sold in three years was to be sold at the prevailing government price for homesteads: $1.25 per 1 acre (0.40 ha) if there were any buyers. Had the bonds not been repaid (which they were with interest), the Acts provided that all remaining railroad property, including trains and tracks, were to revert to the U.S. government for disposal.

The massive amount of capital investment (over $100,000,000 in 1860 dollars) needed to build the railroad was obtained by selling government guaranteed bonds (granted per mile of completed track) and railroad company bonds and stock to interested private investors

The bonds would be paid back by the sale of government granted land and prospective passenger and freight income.

It was far from a given that the railroads to the thinly settled west would make enough money to repay for their construction and operation for a long time. In addition to the railroad land grants which the railroads sold at low cost to help pay back their government backed bonds (all were repaid) the 37th United States Congress (1861-1863) passed the Homestead Acts which were several United States federal laws that sold an applicant 160 acres (65 ha) of unclaimed government owned land, typically called a “homestead”, at low cost when the applicant did some prescribed work on it. There was now a strong and relatively low cost incentive for the settlement of the west which many thousands took advantage of. The railroads started new population growth and potential population growth induced many other railroads to be built and connected to the transcontinental railroad to serve communities and states off the original main track.

The Central Pacific, facing a semi-skilled labor shortage, relied on some black employees[13] escaping the slavery and turmoil of the American Civil War and many emigrant Chinese manual laborers for construction. Most of these Chinese emigrants were escaping the poverty and terrors of the Taiping Revolution in the Kwangtung province in China. Supervisory, engineering and skilled jobs were done with experienced “white” workers including a lot of Irishmen. The Chinese, despite their small stature[14] and total lack of experience with railroad work, handled most of the heavy manual labor needed to get over and through the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains and across the Nevada and Utah deserts. In that time period there was only a very limited amount of work that could be done by animals, simple machines or black powder. Most of the black and white workers were paid $30.00/month and provided food and lodging. Higher skilled and supervisory jobs paid more. Most Chinese were initially paid $31.00/month and provided lodging. They bought and cooked their own food—just as they desired. In 1867 this was raised to $35.00/month after a strike.[15][16][17]

The Central Pacific RR broke ground on January 8, 1863. Essentially all of their manufactured railway supplies: picks, shovels, axes, hammers, saws, sledge hammers, spikes (about 5,500/mile), rock drills, black powder, bridge hardware, iron rails (about 350 rails/mile of 30 foot rails; 200,000 pounds/mile), fishplates (700/mile if using 30 foot rails), bolts and nuts to bolt the fishplates on, wrenches, railroad switches for the many railroad sidings needed on a one way track, railroad turntables, steam locomotives, railroad freight cars, railroad passenger cars, telegraph wire, insulators, batteries, telegraph keys, etc. would have to be imported from manufacturers on the East Coast of the United States. These goods would have to travel by trains to the east coast ports and loaded on board ships which then went on about 18,000 miles (29,000 km) and about 200 day (by regular sailing ship) trip or about 120 day trip (by Clipper ship) around South America’s Cape Horn or the much more expensive route across the new paddle steamer and Panama Railroad‘s crossing of the Isthmus of Panama—about a 40 day trip and twice as expensive per pound of merchandise. Most passenger traffic went via the much faster Panama route. After the goods got to the San Francisco Bay area they would have to be unloaded from the ships and put on river paddle steamers for transport over the final 130 miles (210 km) trip up the Sacramento River to the new state capital of Sacramento, California. The first CPRR track was laid in August 1863 when rail shipments finally reached Sacramento. Many of these steam engines, railroad cars, etc. were shipped dismantled and had to be reassembled in the Sacramento Central Pacific maintenance yards. Ties (about 2,500/mile), construction lumber, telegraph poles, trestle and bridge timbers, and firewood to feed the CPRR locomotives could be sawed and/or chopped from timber already in California, Oregon, etc. and transported by ship, wagon and rail to where needed.

The Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) did not start construction until July 1865, due to the difficulty getting organized and obtaining financial backing and the Civil War’s need for workers, rails, ties, steam locomotives and railroad supplies.

. Nearly all equipment and railroad supplies would have to be initially be delivered to Omaha and Council Bluffs by paddle steamer up the Missouri River during the summer until rail connections to the east could be finished. The U.S. Civil War ended 22 June 1865. In the first year, 1865, so little work was done by Union Pacific that they sold two of the four steam locomotives they had purchased.

After the Civil War, competition for railroad supplies to build a new transcontinental railroad while building or rebuilding new railroad nets and repairing and bringing up to date the damaged rail networks in the south initially caused railroad supplies prices to rise. Completion of the railroad and the new Homesteading laws substantially accelerated populating the West. Land could now be obtained fairly cheaply and there was now a much cheaper and faster way to get “goods” to buy and sell, and widespread markets for those goods regardless of where you lived. The railroads established the equivalent of inland “ports”. They established the modern state’s land highways of commerce and trade, resulting in the decline of territory “controlled” by the Indian tribes in these regions.[18][19]

By 1865, steel rails had only just been introduced, as the Bessemer process and open hearth furnace steel making processes started to be established in the United States. From these came steel rails which, at slightly higher prices, lasted much longer than iron rails. They were not used in building the first transcontinental railroad though which was built as rapidly as possible at as low an initial cost as possible. The advantages of steel rails had as yet not been demonstrated. Upgrades would have to be made in railroad equipment, tracks, ties, bridges, etc. as the railroad became profitable or wore out. Within a few years, nearly all railroads converted to steel rails.

Time was not standardized in the U.S. then, but set by each railroad to minimize errors in scheduling its own trains. Only later (about 1883) were standardized time zones set up and time standardized so all the railroads could schedule their trains—later recognized by Congress. Needing rapid communication for ordering more supplies or particular types of workers with specific skills, and needing to schedule the trains which had to go both ways on a single track, the companies built telegraph lines along the railroad rights of way as the track was laid. The close proximity of the railroad made these lines easier to protect, easier to supply with operators for relay or train stations, and easier to maintain than the original First Transcontinental Telegraph lines, which went over much of the original routes of the Mormon Trail up the North Platte River and across the very thinly populated Central Nevada Route through the central Utah and Nevada Big Basin “deserts”. The railroad’s telegraph lines, which followed the railroad and were needed to schedule train traffic to avoid conflicts and collisions, soon superseded the earlier telegraph lines in general use. Many of the original telegraph lines were abandoned by the original telegraph companies as they merged their telegraph business with the railroad telegraph lines—just as specified by Congress.

Coal had been discovered in Wyoming and reported on by John C. Frémont in his 1843 expedition across Wyoming, and was already being exploited by Utah residents from towns like Coalville, Utah and later Kemmerer, Wyoming by the time the Transcontinental railroad was built. Union Pacific needed coal to fuel its steam locomotives on the almost treeless plains across Nebraska and Wyoming. Coal shipments by rail were also looked on as a potentially major source of income—this potential is still being realized.

The Central Pacific laid 690 miles (1,110 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, California in 1863 and continuing over the rugged 7,000-foot (2,100 m) Sierra Nevada mountains at Donner Pass into the new state of Nevada

n June 1864, the Central Pacific railroad entrepreneurs opened Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR).[40] Costing about $300,000 and a years worth of work, this toll road wagon route was opened over much of the route the Central Pacific railroad (CPRR) would use over Donner Summit to carry freight and passengers needed by the CPRR and to carry other cargo over their toll road to and from the ever advancing rail head and over the Sierras to the gold and silver mining towns of Nevada.

The volume of the toll road freight traffic to Nevada was estimated to be about $13,000,000 a year as the Comstock Lode boomed, and getting even part of this freight traffic would help pay for the railroad construction. When the railroad reached Reno, it had the majority of all Nevada freight shipments, and the price of goods in Nevada dropped significantly as the freight charges to Nevada dropped significantly.

On June 18, 1868, the Central Pacific reached Reno, Nevada after completing 132 miles (212 km) of railroad up and over the Sierras from Sacramento, California. By then the railroad had already been prebuilt down the Truckee River on the much flatter land from Reno to Wadsworth, Nevada where they bridged the Truckee for the last time. From there, they struggled across a forty mile desert to the end of the Humboldt river at the Humboldt Sink. From the end of the Humboldt, they continued east over the Great Basin desert bordering the Humboldt River to Wells, Nevada.

Water for the steam locomotives was provided by wells, springs, or pipelines to nearby water sources. Water was often pumped into the water tanks with windmills.

The original transcontinental railroad route did not pass through the two biggest cities in the so-called Great American DesertDenver, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. Feeder railroad lines were soon built to service these two and other cities and states along the route.

The Pacific Railroad constituted one of the most significant and ambitious American technological feats of the 19th century, following in the footsteps of the Erie Canal (and many other canals) in the 1820s, the building of extensive railroad networks in the eastern, southern and midwest parts of the U.S starting in the 1830s and the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama by the Panama Railroad in 1851-1855. The transcontinental line served as North America’s vital link for trade, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the late 19th-century United States. It brought the states of Nevada, California, Oregon and the Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Washington territories firmly into the Union and made settlement of the west much more rapid and inexpensive.

The railroad established the nation’s economic infrastructure for the future. The far slower, more hazardous and more expensive stagecoach lines from Missouri to California with about 28 days of day and night travel had mostly been used for carrying a few intrepid passengers and mail services. The route along the Oregon, Mormon and California Trails was so rugged at about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) and 140–160 days travel over mostly unimproved roads that almost no cargo to coastal states or territories had gone by land. About the only cargo shipped overland by wagons had gone to the “landlocked” cities of Salt Lake City, Utah and later to Virginia City, Carson City, Nevada and Denver, Colorado. In fact, about 50% of the population and more than 90% of the extensive cargo shipments needed in the rapidly developing Pacific states had arrived by sailing ship to the Pacific around Cape Horn or by paddle steamers to Mexico, Nicaragua or Panama, a land transit to the Pacific Ocean and then another paddle steamer to California, Oregon or Washington.

The developing railroads provided the technology for much faster, safer and cheaper transportation of emigrants and goods. The railroads, bankers and the United States government in the East promoted this worldwide migration to attract specific populations for agricultural progress with the sales of land-grant lots, and then provided farmers the cheap and quick transportation for the cornucopia of crops, minerals and timber. The need for wheat and other staples led to the rapid settling of the supposed “Great American Desert” once easy rail transport became available.[51][page needed]

Legislation to begin construction of the Pacific Railroad (called the Memorial of Asa Whitney) was first introduced to Congress by Representative Zadock Pratt.[53] Congress did not immediately act on Whitney’s proposal.

Because the U.S. Congress was divided between slave and non-slave state members, it could not reach agreement on supporting construction of a particular route. Each region wanted the railroad because of its benefits. The decision became embroiled in the divisive sectional dispute that eventually turned into the American Civil War. The southern route was not constructed until 1880, when the Southern Pacific Railroad crossed Arizona territory.

The Pony Express from 1860 to 1861 was to prove that the Central Nevada Route across Nevada and Utah and the sections of the Oregon Trail across Wyoming and Nebraska were viable during the winter. With the American Civil War raging and a secessionist movement in California gaining steam, the apparent need for the railroad became more urgent.

Most of the capital investment needed to build the railroad was generated by selling government-guaranteed bonds (granted per mile of completed track) to interested investors. The Federal donation of right-of-way saved money and time as it did not have to be purchased from others. The financial incentives and bonds would hopefully cover most of the initial capital investment needed to build the railroad. The bonds would be paid back by the sale of government-granted land, as well as prospective passenger and freight income.

The track laying was divided up into various parts. In advance of the track layers, surveyors consulting with engineers determined where the track would go. Workers then built and prepared the roadbed, dug or blasted through hills, filled in washes, built trestles, bridges or culverts across streams or valleys, made tunnels if needed, and laid the ties. The actual track-laying gang would then lay rails on the previously laid ties positioned on the roadbed, drive the spikes, and bolt the fishplate bars to each rail. At the same time, another gang would distribute telegraph poles and wire along the grade, while the cooks prepared dinner and the clerks busied themselves with accounts, records, using the telegraph line to relay requests for more materials and supplies or communicate with supervisors. Usually the workers lived in camps built near their work site. Supplies were ordered by the engineers and hauled by rail, possibly then to be loaded on wagons if they were needed ahead of the rail head. Camps were moved when the rail head moved a significant distance. Later, as the railroad started moving long distances every few days, some railroad cars had bunkhouses built in them that moved with the workers—the Union Pacific had used this technique since 1866.[67] Almost all of the roadbed work had to be done manually, using shovels, picks, axes, two-wheeled dump carts, wheelbarrows, ropes, scrapers, etc., with initially only black powder available for blasting. Carts pulled by mules, and horses were about the only labor saving devices available then. Lumber and ties were usually provided by independent contractors who cut, hauled and sawed the timber as required.

In addition to track laying over a course laid out by the engineers and surveyors, the operation also required the efforts of hundreds of railroad bed builders, bridge builders, trestle builders, lumberjacks, sawyers, tunnelers, explosive experts, blacksmiths, carpenters, civil engineers, masons, teamsters, telegraphers, and even cooks, to name just a few of the trades and skills involved in construction of the railroad. Depending on the job, different mixes of personnel were required.

Upon the completion of their work on the CPRR’s portion of the Pacific Railroad, many Chinese workers moved on to other railroad construction jobs including with the Central and Southern Pacific. Of those that left the company’s employ, some returned to their families in China with their savings, while others sent to China for wives and settled in various western communities as miners, laundrymen, and restaurateurs. Some returned with their families and settled into “China towns” in various cities. The majority who remained in the United States, however, returned to and settled in the San Francisco Bay area, Sacramento, Marysville and elsewhere along the Pacific coast. Because of the later restrictions on the immigration of Chinese workers, many never got married or reunited with their families if they stayed in the U.S.[16]

On January 8, 1863, Governor Leland Stanford ceremoniously broke ground in Sacramento, California, to begin construction of the Central Pacific Railroad.

Consequently, after a trial crew of Chinese workers was hired and found to work successfully, the Central Pacific expanded its efforts to hire more emigrant laborers—mostly Chinese. Emigrants from poverty stricken regions of China, many of which suffered from the strife of the Taiping Rebellion, seemed to be more willing to tolerate the living and working conditions on the railroad construction, and progress on the railroad continued.

he Native Americans 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 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.

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 Leland Stanford drove The Last Spike (or golden spike) that joined the rails of the transcontinental railroad.

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 Leland Stanford drove The Last Spike (or golden spike) that joined the rails of the transcontinental railroad. The spike is now on display at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, while a second “Last” Golden Spike is also on display at the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.[77] In perhaps the world’s first live mass-media event, the hammers and spike were wired to the telegraph line so that each hammer stroke would be heard as a click at telegraph stations nationwide—the hammer strokes were missed, so the clicks were sent by the telegraph operator. As soon as the ceremonial spike had been replaced by an ordinary iron spike, a 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. Travel from coast to coast was reduced from six months or more to just one week.

In November 1869, the Central Pacific finally connected Sacramento to the east side of San Francisco Bay by rail at Oakland, California, where freight and passengers completed their transcontinental link to the city by ferry.

On June 4, 1876, an express train called the Transcontinental Express arrived in San Francisco via the First Transcontinental Railroad only 83 hours and 39 minutes after it had left New York City. Only ten years before, the same journey would have taken months over land or weeks on ship, possibly all the way around South America.

Crédit Mobilier

Despite the transcontinental success and millions in government subsidies, the Union Pacific faced bankruptcy less than three years after the Last Spike as details surfaced about overcharges that Crédit Mobilier had billed Union Pacific for the formal building of the railroad. The scandal hit epic proportions in the United States presidential election, 1872, which saw the re-election of Ulysses S. Grant and became the biggest scandal of the Gilded Age. It would not be resolved until the death of the congressman who was supposed to have reined in its excesses but instead wound up profiting from it.

Durant had initially come up with the scheme to have Crédit Mobilier subcontract to do the actual track work. Durant gained control of the company after buying out employee Herbert Hoxie for $10,000. Under Durant’s guidance, Crédit Mobilier was charging Union Pacific often twice or more the customary cost for track work (thus in effect paying himself to build the railroad). The process mired down Union Pacific work.

Lincoln asked Massachusetts Congressman Oakes Ames, who was on the railroad committee, to clean things up and get the railroad moving. Ames got his brother Oliver Ames, Jr. named president of the Union Pacific, while he himself became president of Crédit Mobilier.[80]

Ames then in turn gave stock options to other politicians while at the same time continuing the lucrative overcharges. The scandal was to implicate Vice President Schuyler Colfax (who was cleared) and future President James Garfield among others.

The scandal broke in 1872 when the New York Sun published correspondence detailing the scheme between Henry S. McComb and Ames. In the ensuing Congressional investigation, it was recommended that Ames be expelled from Congress, but this was reduced to a censure and Ames died within three months.

Durant later left the Union Pacific and a new rail baron Jay Gould became the dominant stockholder. As a result of the Panic of 1873, Gould was able to pick up bargains, among them the control of the Union Pacific Railroad and Western Union.[81]


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