May 10, 1869. On this day, near the north shore of the Great Salt Lake, a large crowd had gathered to watch a significant historic moment. The crowd looked on as a symbolic “golden spike” was driven into a railroad tie. And with that, the nation’s first transcontinental railway system was completed. Travel, commerce, and communications now spanned the entire continent, something that never had happened before on any continent in the history of mankind. It was a very big deal.
In America’s early days, explorers, traders, and entrepreneurs had long sought an easy passage to our West Coast. Indeed, Jefferson commissioned pathfinders Lewis and Clark to seek such a route via the waterways. But the northerly route Lewis and Clark had taken still involved travel over land, some of it very harsh, and winter travel along that route was especially inhospitable and impractical. Then, an innovation—the steam engine—ushered in the railroad industry. By the mid-nineteenth century, the development of a railroad infrastructure had quickly grown, especially along our eastern seaboard. Still, there was no major economic necessity or demand to travel westward to California, and, significantly, there was no “big money” to invest in such an infrastructure.
But in 1848, that changed. Gold was discovered in California. Gold seekers, merchants and Chinese immigrants from the Canton Province swarmed into California by the droves. Just two years later, California was admitted to the Union. Now, the United States government had legitimate assets to protect and a quicker route became a necessity. The alternatives—(1) sailing around the Cape of Good Horn in South America (5 months) or (2) boating down to Panama, crossing it via a 48-mile railway, and then boating up to California (35 days) or (3) traveling overland from St. Louis to San Francisco (30 days)—were not quick enough. In 1862, and despite the overwhelming distraction of the Civil War, Congress enacted and Lincoln signed an Act that financed a transcontinental land route to California via the rails.
By then, a central route was chosen for the railroad. On the eastern side, it would begin at Omaha, Nebraska (railroad lines from the East Coast then extended to Omaha) and it was to be built by the Union Pacific Railroad. On the western side, the Central Pacific Railroad would build a line beginning from Sacramento. The idea was to meet somewhere in the middle.
The work was hard. Armies of Irish and Chinese immigrants, some 20,000 workers in all, used shovels, sledgehammers, and sweat to build it. The summer heat was extreme and uncomfortable. And winter weather was abysmal, as workers had the double duty of shoveling both dirt and snow. Avalanches were not uncommon. And because dynamite had not yet been invented, workers used nitroglycerine—it was volatile and dangerous—causing many injuries and deaths. Working conditions were poor and the pay was low. But, they persevered.
The railway crossed deserts, bored through mountains, traversed rivers, and bridged gaps. The tracks crossed one river alone 31 times! At its highest, it reached nearly 8000 feet. In the end, it spanned an unbelievable 1900 miles.
At the time of its completion, it would become the longest railroad line in the world. The final hookup came at Promontory Point, Utah. Along with the building of the railroad, telegraph lines were also built. The telegraph operators signaled “DONE” when California Governor Leland Stanford (yes, Stanford University was named for him) drove in that final ceremonial spike. A few months later, a line from Sacramento to San Francisco was completed which finally allowed coast-to-coast travel. In all, it took about 6 years to build a system that went from coast-to-coast.
Now, a trip from New York to San Francisco clocked in at about one week, down significantly from the old ways of traveling. Coast-to-coast travel, which cost $1000 in 1850, now cost $150 (still not cheap, but much less!). Most importantly, the railroad united the coasts, spurred incredible economic growth, and allowed for future development across the west. It was a great thing.
The pictures below show the building of this amazing achievement.