Honoring Our Ancestors: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

Today marks the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, then called the Pacific Railroad. The driving of the now-legendary Golden Spike by California governor Leland Stanford at Promontory Summit in the Utah territory on May 10, 1869 marked the completion of the most titanic engineering feat of the nineteenth century and a key moment in the development of the American nation. Begun in earnest only four years earlier, a continuous line of about 1,800 miles of track now connected Sacramento, California and Omaha, Nebraska, cutting the travel time from coast to coast from generally six months to about eight days. The ceremony was also the first major public event to be broadcast live to the entire nation, as telegraphers had rigged the spike and the track so that a signal was sent all across America when the last blow was struck. Technical details prevented the scheme from working perfectly, and telegraphers on the scene had to improvise in order to send the signal, but the entire event was a fitting celebration of progress.


The building of the Pacific Railroad is a massive subject, meriting many volumes, but this present work has only a modest aim: To introduce the reader to the effort and the people involved, and to honor the occasion.


While railroads in the sense of wheeled carts rolling on tracks have existed since antiquity, the modern railroad of self-propelled engines pulling cars over metal tracks arose in the first decade of the Nineteenth Century, and by 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway became the first public railroad to be powered entirely by locomotives. In America, the Baltimore and Ohio, beginning in 1830, soon followed suit. By the 1840’s America had become the world leader in rail technology, as its vast distances stimulated men of vision to push for the most advanced method of transportation as a means of stimulating the economy and, as a side benefit, possibly making a fortune. By 1850, advancements in rail technology made it possible for a locomotive pulling cars to surmount even the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, although even as construction commenced on the Pacific Railroad many rail engineers doubted that a feasible route could be found, especially over the Sierra Nevada.

But the entire nation was entranced by the vision of a “Pacific Railroad,” so-called because most Americans lived on the Eastern seaboard and to them, it was a railroad to the Pacific. In 1862 congress passed the Pacific Railroad Act (actually the first of several Railroad Acts) which, inter alia, authorized the formation of two companies, the Central Pacific Railroad of California which began operations in Sacramento and the Union Pacific Railroad, which commenced operations at Omaha, Nebraska.

The Central Pacific had been incorporated in 1861 by Connecticut-born railroad engineer Theodore Dehone Judah, who had scouted a feasible route for a rail line across America’s highest and steepest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada. Seeking funds, Judah had brought on board four Sacramento shopkeepers who would become some of the richest men in America. The “Big Four,” were Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. Stanford went on to serve two years as Governor of California and eight as United States Senator from California, and in 1891 he founded the Leland Stanford, Jr. University to honor his son, Leland Stanford, Jr, who died in 1884 just short of his sixteenth birthday. Huntington spent most of his rail career on the East Coast securing supplies and financing and influencing congressmen. He was the last of the Big Four to die, in 1900, and his wealth passed to his nephew Henry Huntington, who also married his uncle’s widow Arabella and moved to southern California, making another fortune in real estate and urban railroading. His former mansion is now the Huntington Library and Gardens in San Marino, California.   Charles Crocker, although not trained as a rail engineer, supervised construction; he later claimed that he traveled over the line so often that he could tell his location solely by the feel of the vibrations. In later life he gained an interest in banking; my first bank account was with the now-defunct Crocker Bank. Mark Hopkins took charge of the books, and he was the first of the Big four to die, passing away in 1878. “Uncle Mark” was the most frugal and straight-laced of the Big Four but his estate was embroiled in scandal after he passed away. Hopkins left no will, and his young widow married a male gold-digger more than twenty years her junior. When she died after four years of marriage, Hopkins’ stepson Timothy had to battle in court to recover his inheritance.


The primary characteristic of the Big Four was their solidarity; each had his sphere, which minimized conflict. In contrast, the leadership of the Union Pacific were constantly at loggerheads.  One faction, led by the infamous Thomas “Doc” Durant (graduated medical school but never practiced), believed that the real money was to be made in the building of the line. Given that their work commenced in what was, at the beginning of construction, the middle of nowhere, his opinion was not without merit. The other faction, led by Oakes Ames, believed it was the operations of the completed railroad that held the key to earning a fortune. The infighting was at times so severe that at one point Durant hired operatives to spy on the operations of construction chief Grenville Dodge (after whom Dodge City was named.) In an even more bizarre event Durant, while on his way to the Golden Spike ceremony, was apparently kidnapped by disgruntled UP workers demanding that they receive their wages.


Each side faced massive difficulties in building the line, yet each also had advantages over its rival (it was generally believed that the winner would be the firm that built, and therefore controlled, the most mileage). The Central Pacific faced three main handicaps: isolation, the Sierra Nevada, and difficulty finding workers.

Modern man can scarcely understand the isolation of California before the railroad was completed. To get to California in 1865 from any civilized place typically took six months. Since California in the early 1860’s had no industry to speak of, anything more complicated than a shovel hade to be imported eighteen thousand miles around Cape Horn, effectively doubling the price of everything. A shortcut across the Isthmus of Panama was available, but it raised the price even further and so was seldom used. The UP was isolated too (the eastern rail network was hundreds of miles away from Omaha), but its supply problems were vastly less.

The Sierra Nevada, commencing approximately fifty miles east of the CP’s starting point in Sacramento was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because its gold and silver had generated much economic activity which allowed the railroad to begin earning fares from the very beginning. But the mighty Sierras were also the highest and least-penetrable mountains in the country, and it took heroic efforts to build the line.  Snow drifts as much as sixty feet deep meant that to continue construction during winter (necessitated by the race with the rival UP), tunnels were dug under the snow so that the CPs Chinese workers could keep working. Occasionally avalanches swept men way; the bodies were recovered in the spring and shipped back to the Celestial Kingdom for honorable burial next to their ancestors.  The massive snowfall also necessitated the building of about fifty miles of snow sheds, essentially long narrow barns through which the trains could run even in heavy snow.

The mountains also blessed the CP with essentially unlimited amounts of one of the key supplies needed for railroading: lumber. Since the CP (like the UP) received grants of land beside the railroad line, they had all the lumber they needed right at hand. The UP, building through the prairies, lacked a good wood supply; they had to purchase wood from Wisconsin.  The CP had so much wood they could afford to use it to power their locomotives. In the iconic photo of the golden spike ceremony, the CP locomotive Jupiter, on the left, has the flared smokestack typical of wood-burning engines, while the UP’s Number 119, on the right, has the chimney-straight smokestack of the coal burner.

The CPs labor problems originated with the Sierra gold fields. Workers would typically desert after their first paycheck and take up a career in small-time gold mining. Desertion became so bad that the CP eventually turned to hiring Chinese workers. The Celestials (a common nickname of the day) became known as excellent workers and their fame has endured to the present day. But their most iconic achievement is probably apocryphal. The famous image of Chinese railroad workers hanging in baskets by the side of a cliff while setting explosive charges depicts an event which probably never happened: The angle of the slope was not steep enough for the baskets to hang unimpeded, and a worked suspended in a basket probably cannot generate enough force on a hammer to cut through the rock. But the Chinese were good enough workers that one railroad executive hoped to import a hundred thousand of them, reasoning that since they would work for less pay than native whites, and were less likely to strike, his Chinese workers would give him a decisive advantage. The more things change…

The UP’s greatest handicap has been noted: disharmonious leadership. Compared with the CP, they also faced a greater threat from the Indians. Unlike their California counterparts, the Plains Indians had not been pacified in the 1860s. Construction chief Dodge ordered that all work crews should have rifles at the ready; as a result no Indian raiding parties attacked the construction gangs. But railroad building involved the sending of small parties ahead of the terminus of the line: surveyors, graders to level the line (“make the grade”), and hunters to provide meat to feed the workers. All of these suffered occasional casualties from the natives.  When the CP crossed the Sierras into Nevada they took steps to neutralize the Indian threat. They negotiated with the Indian tribes, giving them the right to ride for free. Chiefs (and, presumably, their wives) could ride in the passenger coaches; ordinary Indians had to accompany the baggage.

The UP also had the advantage that their first five hundred miles or so were driven over relatively flat land. But then they passed into the Rocky Mountains: not quite as rugged as the Sierras, but rugged enough. At Dale Creek in Wyoming a bridge was needed across a massive gorge containing a small creek. While the bridge was half-built, a windstorm arose and the bridge began to sway. The engineers determined that guy wires were needed to prevent the bridge’s destruction, and a volunteer was required to crawl out to the swaying edge, hundreds of feet in the air, and attach one end of the rope to the timbers of the bridge. Eventually a daredevil volunteer was found, and the bridge was saved with no loss of life. The completed Dale Creek bridge was regarded as one of the greatest feats of Nineteenth Century engineering, even meriting its own entry at the Wik.


When the line was completed people expected that it would attract commerce between Europe and the Far East, bringing not only a bonanza to the owners of the UP and the CP, but an improved economy to benefit the common man. Alas, the Suez Canal opened in November of the same year, siphoning off most of the intercontinental traffic. Yet this was just a minor disappointment. The effect of the completed line was immediate and massive. Commerce between the West and East Coasts increased greatly, and when the railroad reached Los Angeles in 1878 it marked the effective beginning of the Southern California we know today. Other railroad lines sprang up, seeking to build on the work of the Pacific Railroad, and the taming of the West began in earnest. Whereas the Pacific Railroad required massive Federal government subsidies, the Great Northern Railway, connecting Minneapolis and Seattle, completed 1893, was built entirely with private funds. By 1890, America had 130,000 miles of railroad.


The railroad is no longer a sign of progress, though it retains a vital role in the shipment of freight. Trains are more the stuff of nostalgia, looking back to a day when the nation was still young and growing, fighting to overcome obstacles and to build our strength. In the modern era, the nation’s main task is said to be fighting injustice and preventing catastrophe. Our main enemies are said to be environmental disaster (especially “climate change”) and intolerance. The people most celebrated today are the outsiders bravely fighting for their rights, and the environmental activists bravely saving the planet by recycling and reducing their carbon footprint.

The story of the Transcontinental Railroad transports us to a healthier time when our nation had more cultural, religious and racial cohesion, and when we were fighting, not to overthrow the ways of our ancestors, but to achieve something great.

9 thoughts on “Honoring Our Ancestors: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

  1. Pingback: Honoring Our Ancestors: The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad | Reaction Times

  2. The Transcontinental was “cutting edge” technology of its time, but the modern railroads are mere vestiges of mid-Twentieth Century technology. Thank you, Alan, for reminding us of an important achievement that could not be duplicated today.

    • “Could not be duplicated today.” Very true, Tom. Environmental bureaucracy, activists, union intransigence,… The Central Pacific, on one day, April 28, 1869, laid ten miles of track, a record that still stands. The only outfit that could have surpassed it, the 1869 Union Pacific, is no longer with us.

  3. Thanks for memorializing this important event. As an historical geographer, I am naturally fascinated by railroad history, which explains the locations of most places of importance west of the Mississippi. As I typed that last line, I heard the horn of the Union Pacific train running down tracks, a quarter mile from my house, first laid by the Houston and Texas Central in 1867. Another side of me feels less affection for the railroad. It severely weakened regional culture and cause a concentration of near-absolute power in a few great cities. Along with the Union victory in 1865, the Golden Spike of 1867 signaled the transition of a republic (or really set of republics) into an empire. But with that said, there remains much to admire in the spirit of these men.

    • Perhaps we can say the railroad is a synechdoche of modernity itself: Impressive, useful, often beneficial, and destructive.

  4. Alan:

    Welcome back, Sir. I was pleasantly surprised to see this entry posted under your by-line after your lengthy hiatus from posting here. Been wondering about you, Sir; hope and trust all is well with you and yours!

    • Thanks, Mr. Morris. It’s good to be back in the saddle.

      My hiatus has not been due to any one factor, so I’ll just say “It’s a long story.”

  5. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 05/12/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

  6. Pingback: Moon Day Review – Crack and the Red Pill | Σ Frame


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