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Article: Tracking the Transcontinental Railroad

Tracking the Transcontinental Railroad

1886 Skeleton Map of the Union Pacific Railroad, Previously in Our Collection

First introduced in 1845, the idea of a transcontinental railroad was shot down in Congress due to semantics. Prior to the Civil War, multiple land surveys were conducted to attempt to create a passage to the Pacific Ocean under the Department of War. Interestingly enough, the multiple efforts to create this unifying railroad were all done under the Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (who later became President of the Confederacy).

Re-introduced in 1861 by a man named Thomas Judah and his slew of California investors, the Pacific Railroad Act passed through Congress with widespread support. This act enabled the government to financially support the transcontinental railroad through land grants and bonds, setting into action the competition between two prominent railroad corporations. The respective Central Pacific and Union Railroad Companies were attempting to create a coast-to-coast railway beginning in both Sacramento, CA and Omaha, NE, racing towards each other to win the race towards the center. Each company was to receive $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track laid, in addition to 6,400 acres of land per mile. However, the act did not specify the meeting point. This placed each company under immense pressure to lay the most tracks per day, stressing the importance of completing the transcontinental railroad.

President Lincoln supported the Pacific Railroad Act as a means of gaining more control throughout the West. Famed Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman also recognized the importance of the construction of the railroads, going so far to say that many campaigns of his would not have been successful without the use of railroads. General Sherman even used railroads in his warfare, destroying Confederate railroad ties to disable their supply chain.

The newly acquired territories saw an increase in the presence of Union supporters due to the influx of East-Coast labor, all of whom were working towards the nationally unifying goal of a transcontinental railroad. In addition to the Pacific Railroad Act, Lincoln supported the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act enabled thousands of Americans to acquire land free of cost, as long as they met all criteria. To learn more about the Homestead Act and its impact on the West, click here. The two acts together created a drive to settle the new territories, with government-backed support and incentives. President Lincoln strategically enabled the transcontinental railroad and the new waves of homesteaders as a way to circumvent the violent battles of the Civil War, profusely infusing the new West with Union men and women.

The Central Pacific Railroad (or CPR) broke ground in 1863, amidst the struggle of the Civil War and all of the supply shortages that came with it. The Union Railroad broke ground much later in 1865, facing even more setbacks than their counterpart. Despite this, the encroaching Union Railroad swept across the Great Plains quicker than the crawling Central Pacific, reaching as far as Wyoming by 1867. Over 1,087 miles of railroad track were laid by the Union Railroad from 1865-1869, employing several thousands of Union and Confederate veterans to complete the task. However, the last stretch of the Union Railroad, laid in Utah, was almost entirely completed by over 2,000 Mormon Church members.

The Central Pacific Railroad found other avenues to source labor, employing thousands of Chinese Immigrants along the California coast. Waves of people looking for refuge from the Taiping Rebellion sought safety and security in the newly acquired California, creating a large base of labor in the area. However, they did not quite find what they were looking for. An estimated 20,000 Chinese emigrants supplied the labor for the CPR for a small fraction of what the white Irish and German emigrants were being paid, all while doing more dangerous and skilled labor. Faced with the looming task of conquering the land of the Sierra Nevadas, the CPR had great difficulty in securing a safe path across the mountain range. This proved to be the greatest obstacle in the east-ward bound section of the transcontinental railroad. 

The construction of the transcontinental railroad greatly contributed towards the reality of the “Wild West”, ushering thousands of war-stricken or otherwise down-on-their luck men into the Great Plains. The territories were still under the control of the federal government at this time, and due to the Civil War there was little to no law enforcement (as all troops were off fighting the Confederates). The lack of a societal pressure to maintain an air of civility enabled the creation of “Hell on Wheels”, or the ephemeral towns that popped up along the Union Railroad’s construction. The flimsy towns had dance halls, saloons, and brothels: everything you would see in an old-fashioned spaghetti western. Very few women were present amongst these routes, as the conditions of the West were often-times too harsh for the “civilized lady”. That being said, sometimes the only interaction with women these laborers could attain would be thanks to the “Hell on Wheels”. 

 

The Union Railroad faced great obstacles while crossing the Great Plains, struggling greatly with their interactions with the Indigenous peoples. The railroad route crossed through spaces protected by treaties between the government and the Indigenous peoples, effectively breaking the treaties and creating a hostile environment among the societies. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s first military command post-Civil War was to control the Western Plains specifically in order to protect the construction of the railroad. In response to growing hostilities, the Union began striking against the Indigenous groups by killing off the American Bison population. The bison were a food source for the Indigenous folks, and were directly affected by the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Split into two populations by the ever-growing railroad, population numbers severely dwindled until near-extinction. In 1868, General Sherman wrote in a private letter stating

“as long as Buffalo are upon the Republican the Indians will go there. I think it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America there this fall for a Grand Buffalo hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all. Until the Buffalo and consequent[ly] Indians are out [from between] the Roads we will have collisions and trouble.”

In the year 1870, approximately two million bison were slaughtered and processed for their bones and hides.

 

When President Grant was elected in 1869, he decided that the government funding would cease until a meeting point was established. Only a few miles from one another, the corporations landed on Promontory Summit, Utah. The final railroad spike was driven into the ground on May 10th, 1869, in a large “Golden Spike Ceremony”. A 17.6 carat spike was used, inscribed with the sentiment “May God continue the unity of our Country as this Railroad unites the two great Oceans of the world.” In addition to this golden spike, three other spikes of precious metals were gifted from the surrounding Arizona and Nevada Territories as a sign of good faith and thanks. The completion of the transcontinental railroad signified the beginning of America's Industrial Revolution, allowing commerce between coasts to flow much faster than ever before. In addition to benefits in the commercial sector, the general public now had the ability to go from coast-to-coast in less than a week. All in all, the interconnection created by the efforts of the respective Central Pacific and Union Railroads and their labor forces benefited many aspects of American life in the Mid-19th-Century.

 

Works Cited

All About Bison Contributors. “Bison History Timeline.” Allaboutbison.com, 2019, allaboutbison.com/bison-in-history/bison-timeline/.

American Battlefield Trust. “The Transcontinental Railroad.” American Battlefield Trust, 6 Feb. 2022, www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/transcontinental-railroad#:~:text=The%20Transcontinental%20Railroad%20also%20allowed.

Gandhi, Lakshmi. “The Transcontinental Railroad’s Dark Costs: Exploited Labor, Stolen Lands.” History.com, 8 Oct. 2021, www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-workers-impact.

History.com Editors. “Transcontinental Railroad.” History.com, 20 Apr. 2010, www.history.com/topics/inventions/transcontinental-railroad.

Kennedy, Lesley. “Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How Some 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen.” History.com, 10 May 2019, www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants.

National Park Service. “Ulysses S. Grant Timeline .” Www.nps.gov, 16 Apr. 2020, www.nps.gov/articles/ulysses-s-grant-timeline.htm.

Shine, Gregory Paynter. “The War and Westward Expansion.” Nps.gov, 2017, www.nps.gov/articles/the-war-and-westward-expansion.htm.

Smithsonian American Art Museum. “How the Railroad Won the War.” American Experience, Feb. 2015, americanexperience.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/How-the-Railroad-Won-the-War.pdf.

Wikipedia Contributors. “First Transcontinental Railroad.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 Feb. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Transcontinental_Railroad.

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