The Building of America’s Trans-Continental Railroad — History is Now Magazine, Podcasts, Blog and Books | Modern International and American history

The Anglo-American Convention of 1818 stipulated that the citizens of both the United States and Britain would have equal access to the Oregon Country—the lands north of Spanish California well into present-day Canada—until its final status was resolved.  But to claim the lush lands across the Rockies and the lucrative trade with China and East Asia the United States had to make good on that claim, whether through diplomacy or war. Some intrepid Americans had already made the trek, but the common view in the East was that the intervening lands were a “howling wilderness” populated by hostile Indians. The experts said that respectable women and families would never make it to, or live in, Oregon. Narcissa Prentiss Whitman (1808–1847) proved them wrong, traveling by wagon train. She sent letters and her journal entries to relatives that described the beauties of the West and offered reassurance that rivers were affordable, travel by wagon was practical, and the so-called hostiles were generally friendly. These letters were circulated among friends and widely published in eastern newspapers. A flood of American, men, women, and children soon headed west following the Oregon Trail, the superhighway of the early American West. By the mid-1850s some 400,000 had made the journey, with perhaps 30,000 perishing en route, primarily from disease.



So, what was the modes of transportation in the United States during the early-mid 1800’s? Before the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, people traveled across the American West mainly by stagecoach. While railroads were available in the East, travel through the West was a slow, laborious process. Of course, waterway travel could be accomplished on a flatboat or a canoe, and then came the Erie Canal in 1825 where travel was done by using mules or horses to pull the riverboats along the sides of the water.  Remember In the early 19th century, most roads were dreadful. They served local needs, allowing farmers to get produce to market. Americans who did travel long distances overland to settle the West rode on wagon trails, like the Oregon Trail, rather than well-defined roads. Still, a few major roads served as important transportation links. The first commercially successful steamboat was tested on the Hudson River in 1807. Steamboats were soon introduced on most navigable rivers, they allowed commerce and travel both upstream and down encouraging trade by lowering costs and saving time. By 1830, steamboats dominated American river transportation. Steam railroads began to appear in the United States around 1830 and dominated the continental transportation system by the 1850s.

The possibility of railroads connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was discussed in Congress even before the treaty with England which settled the question of the Oregon boundary in 1846. Chief promoter of a transcontinental railroad was Asa Whitney, a New York merchant active in the China trade who was obsessed with the idea of a railroad to the Pacific. In January 1845 he petitioned Congress for a charter and grant of a sixty-mile strip through the public domain to help finance construction. Although Congress failed to sanction his plan, Whitney made the Pacific railroad one of the great public issues of the day. The acquisition of California following the Mexican War opened the way for other routes to the coast. The discovery of gold, the settlement of the frontier, and the success of the eastern railroads increased interest in building a railroad to the Pacific.

While sectional issues and disagreements were debated in the late 1850s, no decision was forthcoming from Congress on the Pacific railroad question. Theodore D. Judah, the engineer of the Sacramento Valley Railroad, became obsessed with the desire to build a transcontinental railroad. In 1860 he approached Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker, leading Sacramento merchants, and soon convinced them that building a transcontinental line would make them rich and famous. The prospect of tapping the wealth of the Nevada mining towns and forthcoming legislation for federal aid to railroads stimulated them to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California. This line later merged with the Southern Pacific. It was through Judah’s efforts and the support of Abraham Lincoln, who saw military benefits in the lines as well as the bonding of the Pacific Coast to the Union, that the Pacific Railroad finally became a reality.


The railroad

The Railroad Act of 1862 put government support behind the transcontinental railroad and helped create the Union Pacific Railroad, which subsequently joined with the Central Pacific Railroad Company. On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford, president of the Central Pacific Railroad Company and Thomas Clark Durant, Union Pacific Railroad Company vice president, drove the last spike at Promontory, Utah, linking the eastern railroad system to California. In six years, more than 20,000 workers’ Chinese, Irish, and others had laid down some 1,700 miles of track in the largest American civil-works project to that time.

The railroad opened for through traffic between Sacramento and Omaha on May 10, 1869, when CPRR President Stanford ceremonially tapped the gold “Last Spike” (later often referred to as the “Golden Spike”) with a silver hammer at Promontory Summit. In the following six months, the last leg from Sacramento to San Francisco Bay was completed. The resulting coast-to-coast railroad connection revolutionized the settlement and economy of the American West. It brought the western states and territories into alignment with the northern Union states and made transporting passengers and goods coast-to-coast considerably quicker, safer and less expensive.

The first transcontinental rail passengers arrived at the Pacific Railroad’s original western terminus at the Alameda Terminal on September 6, 1869, where they transferred to the steamer Alameda for transport across the Bay to San Francisco. The road’s rail terminus was moved two months later to the Oakland Long Wharf, about a mile to the north, when its expansion was completed and opened for passengers on November 8, 1869. Service between San Francisco and Oakland Pier continued to be provided by ferry.


Native American impact

Although, by the 1860s, Native Americans had signed away the rights to much of their land in treaties with the federal government, they likely never imagined that a disruptive and massive system like the railroad would be constructed through their traditional hunting grounds. The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad had dire consequences for the native tribes of the Great Plains, forever altering the landscape and causing the disappearance of once-reliable wild game. The railroad was probably the single biggest contributor to the loss of the bison, which was particularly traumatic to the Plains tribes who depended on it for everything from meat for food to skins and fur for clothing, and more.

Tribes increasingly came into conflict with the railroad as they attempted to defend their diminishing resources. Additionally, the railroad brought white homesteaders who farmed the newly tamed land that had been the bison’s domain. Tribes of the Plains found themselves at cultural odds with the whites building the railroad and settlers claiming ownership over land that had previously never been owned. In response, Native Americans sabotaged the railroad and attacked white settlements supported by the line, in an attempt to reclaim the way of life that was being taken from them. Twice, Native Americans sabotaged the iron rails themselves. In August 1867 a Cheyenne raiding party decided they would attempt to derail a train. They tied a stick across the rails and succeeded in overturning a handcar, killing its crew of repairmen, with the exception of a man named William Thompson. If they were not taking aim at the railroad tracks and machinery, they would attack the workers and abscond with their livestock. Ultimately the tribes of the Plains were unsuccessful in preventing the loss of their territory and hunting resources. Their struggle serves as a poignant example of how the Transcontinental Railroad could simultaneously destroy one way of life as it ushered in another. 

We must address the forgotten Chinese workers who built the western leg of the railroad across the Sierra Nevada mountains, connecting the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad in 1869.

From 1863 and 1869, roughly 15,000 Chinese workers helped build the transcontinental railroad. They were paid less than American workers and lived in tents, while white workers were given accommodation in train cars. Chinese workers found some economic opportunity but also experienced hostility, racism, violence, and legal exclusion. Many came as single men; others left families behind. Despite laws restricting Chinese immigration, a few workers were able to send for wives and establish families and lasting communities in the United States. The majority of Chinese railroad workers came from the province of Guangdong in southern China. They were recruited through a vast network of small firms and labor contractors that supplied workers to railroad companies. After arriving in America, many migrants relied on labor contractors and ethnic associations, like the Chinese Six Companies in San Francisco, to find employment and to broker labor contracts with prospective employers.  



Chinese workers made up most of the workforce between roughly seven hundred miles of train tracks between Sacramento, California and Promontory, Utah. During the 19th century, more than 2.5 million Chinese citizens left their country and were hired in 1864 after a labor shortage threatened the railroad’s completion.

Workers toiled six days a week, from dawn to dusk, under extreme weather conditions. To speed progress, a second shift of workers often labored at night by the light of lamps and bonfires. Workers using mostly muscle power graded the road, bored the tunnels, and laid the track they pushed along  the Central Pacific Railroad over the granite wall of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and across the arid west. The work was tiresome, as the railroad was built entirely by manual laborers who used to shovel twenty pounds of rock over four hundred times a day. They had to face dangerous work conditions – accidental explosions, snow and rock avalanches, which killed hundreds of workers, not to mention frigid weather. “All workers on the railroad were ‘other’,” said curator Peter Liebhold. “On the west, there were Chinese workers, out east were Irish and Mormon workers were in the center. All these groups are outside the classical American mainstream.”

The railroad company provided room and board to white workers, but Chinese workers had to find their own meals, which were often brought to them from local merchants. The Chinese workers were educated and organized; 3,000 laborers went on strike in 1867 to demand equal wages, as the white workers were paid double. “They were unsuccessful because they were out in the middle of nowhere,” said Liebhold. “The railroad stopped them from getting food. That’s one way it failed.” By paying laborers a low wage, they were able to skim millions from the construction and get rich.

The Transcontinental Railroad fundamentally changed the American West. As the United States pushed across North America, railroads connected and populated the growing nation. Railroads also sparked social, economic, environmental, and political change. For many, completing the Transcontinental Railroad symbolized achievement and national unity—yet it was built with mostly immigrant labor. Ironically building the Transcontinental Railroad presented both physical and monetary challenges. Even with huge government subsidies, the railroad companies had to raise millions of dollars to cover construction costs. Directors skimmed millions off the construction and became rich. Operating the enterprise was often less profitable.

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