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Building the Trans-Continental Railroad

As the middle of the 19th century loomed, there was no good, efficient way to cross North America from coast-to-coast. An overland trip using horses and wagons across the Great Plains was long, arduous and dangerous. Going by ship meant a six-month trip around South American's Cape Horn, risking storms and ship wrecks. A combination of the two, a ship to the Isthmus of Panama with a land crossing there of the jungle and another voyage to San Francisco, was fraught with the possibility of contracting malaria or yellow fever. What was needed was to build a railroad across America, but that seemed an impossibility.

While building the 1,907 miles (3,069 km) of track that would be needed was not a small job; the biggest obstacle to such a project was the Sierra Nevada mountain range. This formable set of mountains runs 400 miles north and south and 70 wide east and west along the eastern edge of California. Before the state of Alaska was added to the union, it was the highest and longest mountain range in the United States.

It wasn't the size or even the height of the mountains that made it such a difficult problem for the railroad, but the steepness. A railroad engine pulling cars can only climb a grade of 2% under normal conditions (a rise of two feet for every hundred foot of track). Because the Sierra Nevada was so steep and its valleys so narrow, it seemed impossible that one might build a gently-sloping track through them. Making any attempt at doing this even more difficult was the weather coming off of the Pacific Ocean that deposited extreme snow in the range, sometimes as deep as 50 feet.

Theodore Judah

Seven Quick Facts
-Authorization: Lincoln signed Pacific Railway Act into law on July 1st, 1861.
-Length: 1,907-miles (3,069 km) of track from Omaha to Sacramento.
-Start: January 8, 1863, in Sacramento.
-Completion: May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah.
-Most track laid in a single day: 10 miles by the Central Pacific Railroad on April 28, 1869.
-Cost: $150 to travel from coast to coast after the railroads completion.
-Other: Parts of the railroad, especially through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, are still in daily use today.

Despite these challenger one man thought it could be done. His name was Theodore Judah. Judah was a young, ambitious engineer that by the 1860's had already built California's first railroad. Judah dreamed of linking the coasts with a ribbon of steel and took 23 trips into the mountains to scout a path. In 1862 he traveled east to the nation's capital in Washington, D.C. to convince the government that such a project could succeed.

Judah met with members of Congress and President Lincoln. Lincoln, in particular, saw the need, especially during the Civil War, of uniting the country with a rail line. So in 1862 he signed the Pacific Railroad Act. This law authorized two companies, one working from the east and the other working from the west, to build a railway across the western United States. To encourage this endeavor, the government would grant $16,000 for each mile of track laid over flat ground. The money increased as the terrain got steeper, topping out at $48,000 in the most difficult mountains. In addition. the railroad companies would be granted a 400 foot right-of-way along the tracks (later the government would double this). This land grant was also a huge financial enticement as the property along the tracks would be very valuable once the rails were laid and the line was in service.

Central Pacific Railroad

Judah worked with four shopkeepers from Sacramento, California, to form the Central Pacific Railroad Company in 1863. The group had difficulty in raising the necessary funds, however, and Judah had disagreements with the partners as he perceived they were using legally-questionable schemes to obtain the cash needed. Unfortunately, during a trip to the East Coast to find new backers, Judah contracted yellow fever in Panama. Ironically he died within a few days of a danger his proposed railroad would have banished.

Without his chief engineer, the superintendent of the Central Pacific, Charles Crocker, had to forge on by himself. Perhaps the biggest problem he faced was labor. There wasn't enough men in the Sacramento area to build the railroad and those he did hire were soon enticed away by the promise of silver and gold in the nearby mines of Nevada. In desperation, Crocker decided to hire Chinese laborers. The Chinese were shockingly discriminated against in California at the time and at first his foremen and engineers were skeptical of the Asians' abilities to do heavy construction work. As the project progressed, however, it became obvious that these immigrants would take on the most difficult and dangerous jobs with tireless efforts. Eventually, they were employed in large numbers.

To push the rail line through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a large number of bridges and tunnels were required. This meant blasting away many tons of rock. For this, gun power was used. Using a method imported from their native country, the Chinese would weave giant baskets and attach them to ropes. The baskets would be lowered down from the top of a cliff filled with workers aboard who would chisel holes in the rock and fill them with gun power. After lighting the fuses, they would be pulled up to the top of the cliff before the detonation.

Building the Devils Gate Bridge over Weber Canyon in 1869.

Use of the basket was a dangerous arrangement as high winds would blow it about and a small mistake could set the gun power off prematurely. This procedure became even more dangerous when the railroad tried to speed construction by using the newly-invented explosive, nitroglycerine. Nitro was more powerful than gun power, but was unstable and could easily be set off by a small shock. The Central Pacific tried to use nitro during two different periods, both ending in disaster and the death of many Chinese labors. In the final accident, construction foreman James Strobridge lost an eye, bringing experiments with the dangerous blasting oil to an end.

With the winter came massive snows and the associated avalanches brought construction to a standstill. To protect the tracks and crew, it was necessary to build wooden snow sheds over the right-of-way. These sheds, which ran along where the track had been cut into a steep hill, had sloped roofs designed to allow snow coming down the hillside to slide right over the tracks without covering or damaging them, and then into the valleys below. By the time construction was, over 37 miles of these wooden snow sheds had been built.

Union Pacific Railroad

Back East, Dr. Thomas Durant had been named the leader of the Union Pacific Railway which would forge a path from the existing tracks in the Mid-West towards the Pacific coast. The two railways would be in competition to lay as much track as possible. Since the federal goverment granted money and land for each mile laid, each company had the incentive to do as much construction as they could.

In 1866, after several changes in chief engineers, Civil War veteran General Grenville Dodge was put in charge. He settled on a route starting from the city of Omaha and running up the Platte Valley. While initially the Union Pacific would have it much easier as they were laying track through much flatter land, eventually they would need to cross the Rocky Mountains, a significant obstacle, but not nearly as difficult as the Sierra Nevada Range the Central Pacific would have to conquer.

To allow work to move quickly, General John S. Casement, who was in charge of construction, built several railroad cars equipped as portable bunkhouses and a galley for his men. In addition, temporary, "hell-on-wheels" towns, made mostly of canvas tents, also followed the moving construction site. To provide meat, a herd of cattle was kept close by and hunters were employed to augment this food supply with buffalo meat from wild American bison found in the area.

A Central Pacific Chinese railroad crew working in the snow.

Much of the difficulty General Dodge and his team encountered was not with construction challenges, but with the native American tribes they encountered. Decades of encroachment on Indian lands by the Europeans had made the tribes distrustful of the white man. The Native Americans saw his "iron horse" and its tracks as a further violation of their territory. They were also concerned with the massive hunting of the bison as these animals provided much of the Indian's sustenance. All these factors caused some of the Native American tribes to take violent action to prevent the railroad's progress.

While the main construction group working on the rails numbered about a thousand, making them difficult to attack, smaller survey and preparation teams working ahead were easy targets. In August of 1867, a band of Cheyenne, looking for revenge on white soldiers that had stolen from them, knocked down a telegraph line along the tracks. When a team of six repair men were sent out to investigate, they were attacked and scalped. Only one survived by playing dead. While he watched, the band also attacked an approaching freight train, killing both the engineer and fireman.

After a number of these incidents, General Dodge appealed to the government for help. General Sherman, the former Civil War hero who had burned Atlanta, promised to protect the railway workers by waging war on the Native Americans.

Another problem was that the towns along the Union Pacific's route often became dens of gambling and violence as workers let off steam from their difficult and dangerous jobs. It is from these thse towns many of the legends of the vilolent American West were formed. Julesburg, Nebraska, soon acquired the reputation as "the wickedest town in America" where, according to journalist Henry Stanley, "not a day passes but a dead body is found somewhere in the vicinity." Gamblers, desperados, gun slingers and prostitutes all called the city their home.

General Dodge, angered by the activity in Julesburg and the fact that it was occurring on Union Pacific land, ordered the town to be cleared out and John Casement, in charge of railroad construction, took 200 railroad men armed with rifles into it. In the end, 30 of the squatters were killed and Casement declared proudly, "They all died with their boots."

The Final Spike

Eventually, the Union Pacific rail line crossed the Rockies and the Central Pacific completed its Sierra Nevada tracks. The question soon became, where would the two railways meet? Because each company was earning government money for each mile of track laid, there was little incentive to find a logical meeting point. Teams grading and preparing the land for the track actually passed by within sight of each other heading opposite directions. As a source of pride, the railways also attempted to outdo each other on the amount of track they could lay in a single day. The Central Pacific took the record by laying 10 miles on April 28, 1869.

The U.S. President, General Grant, had to threaten to withhold funds from both competitors before they finally decided on an agreeable mutual meeting point at Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake in Utah.

The combined railway was officially opened on May 10, 1869. Two highly-decorated engines, one from each railway, were pulled up within a few feet of each other with trains behind them filled with celebrating workers. In between the trains at the final connection, there was a ceremonial driving of the "Last Spike," made of gold with a silver hammer. After the ceremony, the spike was removed and is now in the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University.

News of the achievement was sent around the world. A telegram arrived for President Grant declaring, "The Last Rail is Laid! The Last Spike is Driven! The Pacific Railroad is Completed!"

Once the railway went into service, travel time from coast-to-coast dropped from six months to just a week (By 1876, an express service was offered that would take a person from New York City to San Francisco in only 83 hours). The cost also dropped from around $1,000 to just $150, so people and goods could move across the country quickly and cheaply. The rail line transformed the settlement of the American West by bringing western states and territories firmly and profitably into the "Union." Just as President Lincoln had thought, the ribbon of steel had united the nation.

Construction of the Union Pacific reaches a lone pine designated as the "1,000 Mile Tree," a thousand miles from the start at Omaha.

Copyright 2016 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.