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Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Transcontinental Railroad

This past month has been a very busy one for me...it just seems to be one thing after another, including the RWA Conference in Orlando. So my blog day snuck up on me. I'm doing a very brief blog on The Transcontinental Railroad, an almost, just the facts, ma'am, and then not too many of them. I hope you enjoy it just the same!

Transcontinental Railroad
In It’s About Time: How Long History Took, Mike Flanagan tells us that the building of the Transcontinental Railroad took five years, six months and fifteen days, between 1863-1869. The Civil War disrupted the building somewhat.

The planning for a railroad that went from one coast to the other had been bounced around for more than a decade. Railroad developers and land speculators, along with commercial interests promoted the building of the rail line during the 1850’s. However, the nation was in a huge debate over the expansion of slavery and the idea never fully got off the ground as “sectional differences over routes delayed the start of the line.” (America: A Narrative History) The start withdrawal of the Southern states from the Union and the start of the Civil War allowed for the passage of the Pacific Railway Bill, which Lincoln signed into law in 1862. It authorized the building of north-central route jointly by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific.

While construction was started during the Civil War, actual work didn’t begin until 1865, after the war ended. The Central Pacific started in Sacramento, CA, while the Union Pacific started in Omaha, NE.

According to America: A Narrative History (my college history book), “The Union Pacific pushed across the Plains at a rapid pace, avoiding the Rocky Mountains by going through Evans Pass in Wyoming. The work crews…had to cope with bad roads, water shortages, rugged weather, and Indian attacks. Construction of the rail line and bridges was hasty and much of it was so flimsy that it had to be redone later.”

The workers were made up of ex-soldiers, Irish immigrants and Chinese men looking to make it rich and return to their homeland to marry and buy land. By 1887, The Central Pacific had 12,000 Chinese laborers, who represented 90 percent of their workforce.

The Union Pacific had to build through mountains, namely the Sierras, and only built 689 miles of track compared to the Union Pacific’s 1,086 miles. On May 10, 1869, the two tracks were joined at Promontory Point, Utah, finally connecting the two coasts.

The railroad opened a new era in American history. Farms, ranches and towns sprouted up around the lines. The rail lines brought people, goods and animals to vast Western United States. What had taken months to travel, now only took weeks or even days.

Anna Kathryn Lanier
Where Tumbleweeds Hang Their Hats


Mary Ricksen said...

Great information! Just what I needed actually!

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Hi, Mary. So glad you found it helpful. I think the building of the transcontinental railroad was a major untertaking. I'm still taken aback by the fact the rails lined up! I mean think about that? Two lines coming in opposite directions....just off an inch and it's all kaput!

Sally said...

In a sale at the local library I found a wonderful story about a young chinese fellow working on the railroad in the Sierras. He and several of his male family members worked with explosives carving tunnels through the mountains. It was a great story from a 'different' perspective.

Paty Jager said...

I always enjoy any information about the Railroads. They tend to wind up in my books in some form or another.

Terry Blain said...

When I taught US History (college level) here in Southern California, I did a whole lecture on the Continental railroad, focusing on the building of the Union Pacific. A group of business men, called ‘the Big Four’, Huntington (Hunting Library), Hopkins (hotel in SF), Crocker (family owned banks), Stanford (university), backed an engineer named Judah to devise the plans for the railroad (man, it’s been a long time and I not bothering to look in my notes and Judah’s first name escapes me).

Congress passed Judah’s plan, and the Big Four, who at that time were middling size business men. Congress paid the Union Pacific so much a mile based on the terrain, and since most of it was mountains, they got paid a bunch (not remembering the exact figure). In any case, by the time the railroads met up. The Big Four made $2 for every $1 they spent on construction.

That how they all got really rich.

Sheri Humphreys said...

My great-grandfather laid track and was present at the driving of the golden stake.