Thursday, August 6, 2020

The First Transcontinental Railroad

Photo: Free-photos/Pixabay
We all know travel can be exhausting. Arriving at the airport hours in advance, slogging through security lines, and being shoe-horned into an plane make for a long and difficult day. However today’s trips are much easier than journeys made during the early days of the US, especially during western expansion. Expeditions held great risk and took weeks or months regardless of whether people chose to go overland in wagon trains or via ship around Cape Horn.

The industrial revolution changed a great many things, including transportation. In 1826, British engineer George Stephenson successfully applied steam technology to create the first locomotive. Two years later, the first U.S. chartered railroad, the Baltimore and Ohio, commenced construction when the 91-year-old Charles Carroll (that last living signer of the Declaration of Independence) turned over a spadeful of dirt in Baltimore.

Photo: Martin Winkler/Pixabay
New railroads came quickly, and by 1850 nearly 9,000 miles of track had been laid east of the Missouri River. As settlers moved westward, Congress was approached many times about offering federal funding for a railroad that would reach the Pacific. Unfortunately, the growing sectionalism within the country squashed all lobbying attempts.

Recognizing the importance of a transcontinental railroad, in 1861 an engineer named Theodore Judah managed to pull together a group of private investors to form the Central Pacific Railroad. He then went to Washington, DC where he convinced government leaders to provide support, and in 1862 President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act.

Terms of the act designated that the Central Pacific Railroad company would start building in Sacramento, California and continue east to the Sierra Nevada, while the Union Pacific Railroad would build westward from the Missouri River, with the two lines of track meeting in the middle. Each company would receive 6,400 acres of land (later doubled) and $48,000 in government bonds for each mile of track laid.

The race was on.

From the beginning, the project was fraught with challenges and setbacks: financial troubles, labor shortages, attacks by Native Americans, disease, the Civil War, and Judah’s death. Finally, by 1867, the Union Pacific had reached Wyoming, covering more than four times as many miles as the Central Pacific. Both companies sped toward Salt Lake City (cutting many corners along the way which would later require repair).

By early 1869, there were only a few miles left to complete, but the companies had yet to agree on a meeting point. President Grant announced that no more federal funds would be forthcoming until the decision was made. After much discussion, Promontory Summit was chosen, a spot north of the Great Salt Lake. On May 10, the final spike made of 17.6-karat gold, was driven into the ground, linking the two railroads.

The gold spike was replaced by a traditional iron spike, and telegraph wires lit up with cables announcing the railroad’s completion. The gold spike is now part of a collection at Stanford University.

I love railroads and have taken many trips over the years. Have you ever ridden a train?

Linda Shenton Matchett writes about ordinary people who did extraordinary things in days gone by. A volunteer docent and archivist for the Wright Museum of WWII, Linda is also a trustee for her local public library. She is a native of Baltimore, Maryland and was born a stone's throw from Fort McHenry. Linda has lived in historic places all her life, and is now located in central New Hampshire where her favorite activities include exploring historic sites and immersing herself in the imaginary worlds created by other authors. You can connect with her at

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  1. I've ridden on a commuter train from CT to NYC. I would love to take a train ride. I hear that you have to choose carefully to get a scenic ride; where you can actually enjoy the views. Thanks for posting!

    1. Hi Connie! Yes, not all railroads offer a great view. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. From Green Bay to Milwaukee. Big whoop. I'd love to do a train journey out west.