Transcontinental Railroad

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Editor: Thomas Riggs
Date: 2015
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 2,087 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1460L

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Transcontinental Railroad

A transcontinental railroad is a train route that crosses an entire continent. The route may be operated by a single company or by multiple companies. In the United States the First Transcontinental Railroad was a railroad line that ran approximately 1,800 miles from Sacramento, California, to Omaha, Nebraska, where it connected with a network of existing rail lines and continued to numerous points on the East Coast. Known as the Overland Route, the railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 primarily by two companies, the Central Pacific Railroad (CP), which laid track east from Sacramento, and the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), which built west from Omaha (the Central Pacific sold the rights to construct the 132-mile line from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area to the Western Pacific Railroad Company). The two lines were joined in the Utah Territory at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, when Leland Stanford (1824–93), president of the Central Pacific, drove a golden spike into the line to unite the two sets of tracks. The completion of the railroad contributed to the economic development of the country, promoting the growth of towns and cities west of the Mississippi River, allowing for efficient delivery of goods from manufacturing centers in the East to the West, and giving U.S. exporters access to markets in Asia. By 1880 more than $50 million worth of freight was transported annually from the East Coast to the West Coast along the transcontinental line.

The idea for a transcontinental railroad was first proposed in the 1830s by New York City dry-goods merchant Asa Whitney (1791–1874), who saw the impact such a route could have on the economy shortly after the first lines had been constructed in the eastern United States. In 1844, after a two-year stay in China, Whitney returned to the United States determined to make his vision a reality by enlisting the support of the U.S. Congress and drafting plans for a line that would run from Lake Michigan to the Columbia River in Oregon. The following year Zadock Pratt (1790–1871), a successful tanner and a representative from New York's Eighth District, presented Whitney's ideas to Congress. However, it was not until 1848, when gold was discovered 40 miles west of Sacramento in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, that a movement to build the railroad took hold. The prospect of making it rich sent thousands of people to the West. In 1850 almost 60,000 people began the trip to California, and by the end of the decade more than 300,000 had made the journey.

At the time those traveling to the West Coast had three options, each of which took about six months and was extremely dangerous. To go overland a traveler took a train to Omaha and then traveled by stagecoach through the plains of the Midwest and over the Rocky Mountains. The coaches were vulnerable to raids by Sioux and Cheyenne peoples while crossing the plains and to attacks by animals in the mountains. Another option was to sail around the southern tip of South America, but this trip was expensive, and the overcrowded ships were subject to attacks by pirates. The third option was to travel by boat to Panama, cross the isthmus by foot or by stagecoach, and then sail to San Francisco. However, much of the journey through Panama was through dense jungle, and travelers ran the risk of dying of fever. A transcontinental railroad not only would eliminate the potential dangers

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The Transcontinental Railroad stretched 1,900 miles from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. Its construction was completed in 1869 by linking the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory, Utah.

The Transcontinental Railroad stretched 1,900 miles from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sacramento, California. Its construction was completed in 1869 by linking the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads at Promontory, Utah. XNR PRODUCTIONS. COPYRIGHT © CENGAGE LEARNING.

involved with crossing the country but also would reduce travel time from New York to San Francisco to one week.

Although the mass migration west in the 1850s had made the need for a railroad obvious, Congress could not agree on a route for the line because of the regional tension that divided the country. Congressmen from both the North and the South felt that a line running through the southern portion of the United States would facilitate the expansion of slavery into the West. As such, Southern leaders would only endorse a bill if the route went through the South; likewise, Northern congressmen demanded that the line run through the North. A line through the center was deemed impossible because no one believed that track could be laid in the difficult terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which marked the center of the country in central California and present-day Nevada.

In 1862, one year after the start of the American Civil War (1861–65), the Union Congress, unencumbered by resistance from the representatives of Southern states, passed the Pacific Railroad Act, which called for construction of a line through the central portion of the country. The problem of crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains had been resolved by Theodore Judah (1826–63), an engineer from Connecticut who surveyed the land in the mountains, determined it was possible to lay track there, and found investors to back his plan. Because the sponsors of the Pacific Railroad Act wanted the line built quickly, they formulated the construction of the rail as a competition between the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific, offering money and land to the companies based on how much track they laid. Congress granted up to 20 sections of land (each section was one square mile) for every mile of track completed. The land was allotted in an area within 40 miles of the track on either side of the line. Companies used some of the land for railroad facilities and sold the rest for profit. In addition to providing land, Page 1340  |  Top of ArticleCongress offered loans for every mile of track, giving $16,000 for every mile covering prairie land, $32,000 per mile on hilly terrain, and $48,000 per mile through the mountains. In total Congress loaned almost $65 million to the two companies. The average interest rate for the loans was 6 percent. After 1862 Congress passed four additional acts of railway legislation to account for adjustments required to continue the project.

The Union Pacific took advantage of government largesse and engaged in questionable business practices. For example, under the direction of President Oliver Ames Jr. (1807–77), UP workers deliberately laid a winding course rather than a straight one to accumulate more miles of track and collect more government funds. Rather than wait for shipments of quality wood for railroad ties, the workers often used the inferior cottonwood available on the plains. They also encouraged wood cutters to cut trees on land that had already been claimed by farmers. In the winter they laid tracks on snow and ice. UP Vice President Thomas C. Durant (1820–85) devised a scam with Oakes Ames (1804–73), the brother of Oliver Ames and a member of Congress, to earn even more profits from building the railroad. First, Durant formed a construction company called Crédit Mobilier of America (CMA) with ship magnate George Francis Train (1829–1904). UP then hired CMA—deliberately over-paying with government funds and holding CMA to the lowest possible standards—to build the track and the railroad facilities. Oakes Ames sold shares of CMA stock to fellow congressmen and paid bribes to ensure that government officials overlooked the dubious arrangement between UP and CMA. The Crédit Mobilier scandal was exposed in 1872 in the presidential election between incumbent Ulysses S. Grant (in office 1869–77) and newspaper editor Horace Greeley (1811–72).

The Central Pacific Railroad was financed by Leland Stanford, Collis Potter Huntington (1821–1900), Mark Hopkins (1813–78), and Charles Crocker (1822–88), known collectively as the “Big Four,” or, as they preferred to call themselves, “The Associates.” Judah had begun to put the group together in the 1850s, a period of time during which he earned the nickname “Crazy Judah,” owing to his zeal for finding a route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After the Central Pacific incorporated in 1861, Judah was hired as chief engineer, but he never lived to see his dream come to fruition. CP laid its first track on October 26, 1863, and Judah died less than two weeks later, on November 2, from a virus he had contracted while traveling in Panama. Just as the leaders of UP had, the Big Four established a construction company with which they entered into questionable business arrangements, but it is generally agreed that their financial transgressions were less excessive than those of the UP. When CP was investigated in the latter part of the nineteenth century, there were no records confirming illegal transactions.

The work went slowly for CP for almost five years, owing to a shortage of labor and materials and the difficulty of laying track in the mountains. The company did not complete its first 18 miles of track until February 1864 and did not reach the mountains, which were 128 miles from their starting point in Sacramento, until 1866. In the winter of 1866–67, CP laid an average of eight inches of track a day as blizzards and avalanches caused long work stoppages. However, after clearing the mountains on April 3, 1868, CP workers picked up the pace considerably. On April 28 CP workers laid 10 miles of track, a record performance that attracted the attention of journalists and invigorated the crew for the race to Ogden, Utah, the originally chosen point for the meeting of the CP and UP tracks. CP workers laid a total of 360 miles of track in 1868, but even so it was apparent early in 1869 that they could not beat the Union Pacific to Ogden, and the meeting point was changed to Promontory Point, about 50 miles to the northeast.

The Central Pacific reached Promontory Point on April 30 but had to wait almost two weeks for the Union Pacific to arrive. CP officials were told that bad weather had delayed work and that UP dignitaries could not arrive at Promontory Point until some track had been repaired. In fact, UP leaders were coping with labor tension that had boiled over in Piedmont, Wyoming, on May 6, when angry workers stopped Durant's private car, chained its wheels to the track, and threatened violence if they did not receive overdue wages. There is some debate over the amount of money Durant owed his workers, but some scholars estimate that he withheld more than $100,000 in wages. Unable to send messages for help, Durant conceded and was permitted to continue his journey. In light of UP delays, the concluding ceremony was scheduled for May 10. After some quarreling it was agreed that CP President Leland Stanford would drive in the golden spike to celebrate the completion of the work. The railway opened for business almost immediately afterward. Almost 150,000 passengers rode the line in its first year of operation, and throughout the 1870s people moved west to farm the land and raise cattle, taking advantage of the link that the railroad provided to markets in the East. In 1883 two more transcontinental lines were completed, one across the northern part of the country and the other across the south. By the end of the 1800s, 15 rail lines crossed the nation.

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Ambrose, Stephen E. Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863–1869. New York: Simon, 2001. Print.

Bain, David Haward. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.

Borneman, Walter R. Rival Rails: The Race to Build America's Greatest Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Random, 2010. Print.

Cooper, Bruce C., ed. Riding the Transcontinental Rails: Overland Travel on the Pacific Railroad, 1865–1881. Philadelphia: Polyglot, 2004. Print.

Duran, Xavier. “The First U.S. Transcontinental Railroad: Expected Profits and Government Intervention.” Journal of Economic History 73.1 (2013): 177–200. Print.

Kraus, George. “Chinese Laborers and the Construction of the Central Pacific.” Utah Historical Quarterly 37.1 (1969): 41–57. Print.

White, Richard. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. New York: Norton, 2011. Print.

Willumson, Glenn. Iron Muse: Photographing the Transcontinental Railroad. Berkeley: U of California P, 2013. Print.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3611000912