Aug 16, 2011
7 Wonders of the Industrial World - Part V
The First Transcontinental Railroad (originally known as the "Pacific Railroad") was built between 1863 and 1869 by the Central Pacific Railroad of California and the Union Pacific Railroad. The line was popularly known as the Overland Route after the principal passenger rail service that operated over the length of the line through the end of 1962.
Talk of a transcontinental railroad started shortly after steam powered railroads were invented in Great Britain and began to be introduced into the United States. The rail line was an important goal of President Abraham Lincoln, fostered during the early portion of his term and completed four years after his death. The building of the railroad was motivated in part to bind California to the Union during the American Civil War. It accelerated the populating of the West by white homesteaders and freed slaves, while greatly contributing to the decline of the Native American culture in the regions it served.
Pacific Railroad bills that proposed to grant lands, subsidies, and even as much as 90 million dollars towards the construction of the railroad were periodically introduced in Congress but none of them passed because a route could not be decided on. Congress was split along geographical lines; northerners wanted a northern route and southerners wanted a southern route.
Congress sent five surveying teams out in 1853 to explore possible railroad routes to California. California desperately needed railroads to replace the mule teams, stage coaches, and steamboats on which the entire economy was dependent and so began their first railroad (the Sacramento Valley Railroad) in 1854, with Theodore D. Judah as its chief engineer.
The railroad surveying teams finished in autumn of 1854. The results of their research were reviewed by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi but still no decision could be made due to a split in Congress between Northern and Southern interests.
In 1861, the Southern congressmen left Congress as a precursor to Southern secession, at which point action and funding progressed immediately to begin work on the Northern route. This decision hinged greatly on analyses of how use of the Railroad would impact the impending Civil War, which had just broken out.
The route followed the well established Oregon, Mormon and California Trails. The new line began in Omaha, Nebraska, followed the Platte River, crossed the Rocky Mountains at South Pass in Wyoming and then through northern Utah and Nevada before crossing the Sierras to Sacramento, California. Additional track was laid to connect Denver, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah and other cities not directly on the route.
The Central Pacific laid 690 miles (1,110 km) of track, starting in Sacramento, and the Union Pacific laid 1,087 miles (1,749 km) of track, starting in Omaha. At first, the Union Pacific was not directly connected to the Eastern U.S. rail network. Instead, trains had to be ferried across the Missouri River. In 1869 the Hannibal Bridge at Kansas City was built and allowed connection to the Kansas Pacific Railway. The Kansas Pacific then linked with the Denver Pacific Railway via Denver to Cheyenne in 1870. In 1873, the Union Pacific Missouri River Bridge opened and directly connected the Union Pacific mainline to the East.
The majority of the Union Pacific track was built by Irish laborers, and veterans of both the Union and Confederate armies. Brigham Young, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wished to see the railroad support emigration and the population centers in Ogden and Salt Lake City, Utah. As the track approached Utah Territory, he sought a labor contract with the Union Pacific. Under this completed contract, workgangs made up almost entirely of Mormons built much of the Union Pacific track in the Utah territory including the difficult section requiring extensive blasting and tunneling through the Weber River canyon.
The Central Pacific's grade was constructed primarily by many thousands of emigrant workers from China who were commonly referred to at the time as "Celestials" and China as the "Celestial Kingdom." Even though at first they were thought to be too weak or fragile to do this type of work, the decision was made to hire as many as could be found in California (where most were independent gold miners or in service industries such as laundries and kitchens). Many more were imported from China. Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, but the workers arriving directly from China received much less. Eventually, they went on strike and gained a small increase in salary.
Most of the work consisted of the laying of the rails. The track laying was divided up into various parts: one gang laid rails on the ties, drove the spikes, and bolted the splice bars; at the same time, another gang distributed telegraph poles and wire along the grade. Almost all of the track work was done manually, using shovels, picks, axes, black powder, two-wheeled dump carts, wheelbarrows, ropes, mules, and horses, while supply trains carried all the necessary material for the construction.
In addition to track laying (which typically employed approximately 25% of the labor force), the operation also required the efforts of hundreds of tunnelers, explosive experts, bridge builders, blacksmiths, carpenters, engineers, masons, surveyors, teamsters, telegraphers, and even cooks, to name just a few of the trades involved in construction of the railroad.
Six years after work began, 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 Governor Stanford drove the Golden Spike (or the Last Spike), that symbolized the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
Visible remains of the historic line are still easily located—hundreds of miles are still in service today, especially through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and canyons in Utah and Wyoming. While the original rail has long since been replaced because of age and wear, and the roadbed upgraded and repaired, the lines generally run on top of the original, handmade grade. Vista points on Interstate 80 through California's Truckee Canyon provide a panoramic view of many miles of the original Central Pacific line and of the snow sheds which make winter train travel safe and practical.
In areas where the original line has been bypassed and abandoned, primarily in Utah, the road grade is still obvious, as are numerous cuts and fills, especially the Big Fill a few miles east of Promontory.
Completion of the railroad was one of the crowning achievements in the crossing of plains and high mountains westward by the Union Pacific and eastward by the Central Pacific. The Transcontinental Railroad established a mechanized transportation network that revolutionized the population and economy of the American West.