A transcontinental railroad is a rail line that connects the East and West Coasts of the United States. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 and marked a major advancement in American transportation. With its completion, the United States was able to move goods and passengers across the country with comparative ease, particularly in comparison to the slow travel times required by wagon trains and ships. Beyond its economic impact, the completion of the transcontinental railroad was seen as a significant symbolic moment in the country’s history. The Golden Spike was a ceremonial spike used to link the eastern and western portions of the rail line and a symbol of a union between all parts of the country. The transcontinental railroad helped to lessen the geographical divisions that separated the country during the Civil War (1861–1865) and allowed the United States to emerge as an economic super power.
Background on the Transcontinental Railroad
The development of a cross-continental system of transportation had long been an ambition in the United States. The country was vast, and crossing it often took weeks. By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the United States’ major population centers were located on the two coasts, while much of the country’s food was produced on the land between the coasts.
The first railroad—a short route in Quincy, Massachusetts—was finished in 1826 and marked the beginning of the railroad industry in the United States. By 1830 a boom had started in the United States that led to the construction of vital routes throughout the East Coast. More than 9,000 miles of tracks had been laid by 1850. However, as early as 1836, several entrepreneurs and journalists had proposed the creation of a railroad that could link the two coasts. The high costs and limited demand for such passages meant that Congress had little initial interest in the project. Asa Whitney, a New York railroad developer, began to lobby Congress for such a project in 1845, but struggled to gain support due to rising regional tensions that would eventually lead to the start of the Civil War in 1861.
In 1853 Congress approved $150,000 to survey possible routes. However, progress toward establishing a plan of construction was blocked by divisions in Congress over whether to use a northern or southern route. Finally, in 1861, engineer Theodore Judah mapped out a route through the Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains that gained broader support than previous plans. With the backing of investors, he established the Central Pacific Railroad Company and lobbied Congress to pass the first Pacific Railroad Act in 1862. This act authorized the use of government bonds and land grants to railroad companies as a means of promoting the private construction of rail lines. This act enabled Judah to begin construction of a West Coast line. A second company, the Union Pacific Railroad, was established as a competing railroad to Judah’s.
The Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad
Under the terms of the bill, Judah’s company was contracted to build line stretching from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Union Pacific, meanwhile, would begin work at the Missouri River and move west. The government did not establish a point of connection between the two lines. Instead, it offered each company 6,400 acres (26 square kilometers) of land—which was later increased to 12,800 acres (52 square kilometers) to heighten the incentives for both companies—and $48,000 for each mile of track completed. Congress hoped that this system of rewarding the two companies for every mile of work would serve to create a competition between them that would speed up construction.
Judah died in November 1863 of yellow fever shortly after the construction of his line began. After his death, the Central Pacific was left in the hands of several of his biggest investors, ambitious men with little engineering or practical construction experience. On the eastern side, a single investor named Thomas Durant was able to gain control of the Union Pacific and began laying tracks in December 1863. The project quickly stalled on both ends due to the progression of the Civil War in the East, and little progress was made until 1866. As the Union Pacific’s lines moved west, they began to encounter Native tribes who fiercely objected to the laying of tracks across their lands. In addition, the construction camps began to earn a reputation as dens of bad behavior where gambling and prostitution were common. Combined with the intense difficulty of the work, the two companies struggled to find workers to fill the ranks of their vast construction crews.
The mass immigration of newly arrived Chinese laborers proved to be an enormous boon to the Central Pacific. An estimated ten to twenty thousand Chinese workers contributed to the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. On the eastern side, Irish immigrants, Mormons from Utah, and Civil War veterans helped to complete the task.
In 1867 the Central Pacific line had reached the Sierra Nevada. This phase of work proved to be especially difficult. Workers had to blast mountains to clear paths for the tracks. This was incredibly dangerous work. Poor conditions and close quarters led to the spread of disease, while lax safety rules and environmental conditions further contributed to worker deaths. Ultimately, an estimated 1,200 workers died during the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, a rate of eighty deaths for every 1,000 workers, one of the highest death rates for a construction project in the modern era.
By the summer of 1867, Union Pacific crews had crossed into Wyoming and built tracks at four times the pace of their rival, which had to negotiate mountains. The two companies had taken Congress’ idea of competition seriously, which led to the construction of poorly built tracks in many places that would later have to be completely rebuilt. Nonetheless, by 1869, it became clear that the companies would meet someplace in Utah, but they could not agree on a location. Frustrated, President Ulysses S. Grant withheld granting any further funds until the two companies could settle on a meeting point. Finally, they agreed on a location called Promontory Point, located 66 miles (106 kilometers) north of Salt Lake City.
The Golden Spike
To celebrate the occasion, a specially crafted golden spike was created to mark the linking of the two lines. On May 10, 1869, an elite crew of Chinese and Irish workers quickly finished the final 10 miles (16 kilometers) of track needed to complete the railroad line in time for the ceremony, which occurred later in the day. Ultimately, the Central Pacific had built 690 miles (1,110 kilometers) of track, while the Union Pacific was responsible for 1,086 miles (1,747 kilometers). In total, the line stretched 1,776 miles (2858 kilometers). Despite all the difficulties, the track was finished ahead of schedule and under budget. The completion of the transcontinental railroad was received with great fanfare across the nation and offered a welcomed sign of unity and achievement to a still fractured nation.
Before the completion of the first railroad, travelers between the coasts had to either endure a six-month voyage by ship that took them around the tip of South America or travel overland across the Continental Divide in a wagon train, a journey that came with significant risks. As a result, travel between coasts was initially very limited and the settlement of the West was comparatively stunted. The discovery of gold in 1849 led to the start of the California Gold Rush and a resulting population boom in the region.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad provided a safe passage between coasts and shortened the trip to just several days. In addition, the cost of a railroad ticket was much less expensive than traveling on a sea passage or wagon train and far more comfortable. As a result, the West saw a new wave of immigration that contributed to a second population boom. Towns fortunate enough to be located along the lines also saw enormous benefits as vast regions were now open to new development.
However, as important as these benefits were, the economic advantages created by the railroad were even greater. Between 1869 and 1879, more than $50 million of cargo was shipped along the line annually. Materials from Asia now had an easier and quicker path to the East Coast. Raw materials like gold and iron ore were used to help drive the Second Industrial Revolution (c. 1870–1920). The railroad also provided the model for other transcontinental railroads, which were regarded as marvels of engineering. These railroads helped steer the United States to become an economic power in the twentieth century.