By Patrick Allitt, Emory University
The railroad builders faced many technical difficulties while building the first transcontinental railroad in America. For example, the engineering of the track into the Sierra Nevadas was very challenging. However, these approaches into and out of the mountains, and the succession of tunnels, was an incredible achievement; the greatest engineering work ever done in America up to that time.
Need for Snow Sheds and Bridges
While building the railway line in Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Central Pacific Company had to build snow sheds as well. In areas of very heavy snowfall and in areas where the line crossed an avalanche track, they had to build heavy timber sheds over the track to keep the track free from snow.
However, they couldn’t be too long, because if they were, fumes from the locomotive would asphyxiate the driver, and there were some early cases of drivers dying from asphyxia, from being in long tunnels or long snow sheds.
Weather Played Its Part, Too
Thus, there had to be gaps between the snow sheds, and this led to a need to hire large numbers of Chinese work crews after the track was finished, to keep shoveling the snow clear. However, there was nothing but trouble associated with these snow sheds. They’d rot in the wet weather and get very dry in dry weather. They would sometimes catch fire and have to be rebuilt. Tourists hated them because they obscured the view, and yet they were absolutely essential.
The same was true of the great trestle bridges that were built; these were immense structures to carry the railway across the ravines in the mountainsides. They also were vulnerable to fire in the summer and rotting in the winter.
They had to be replaced with metal ones over the succeeding decades, so that not only was the initial work very difficult, but also the maintenance work, once the line had been built, remained extremely problematical and very, very labor intensive.
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Challenges in the Nevada Desert
Once the builders got out beyond the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they got down into the Nevada Desert—very flat and dry.
Steam locomotives work by converting water into steam, and so one had to have a big water supply to make them run at all. The railway company had to build long flumes, canals that brought water from streams in the mountains, sometimes 20 or 30 miles down to trackside, so that the locomotives would have a water supply, without which they’d become completely stranded. A standard fixture of all the little stops along the railroad was, thus, a great water tank.
But at least down in the desert, it was relatively flat, and one could make better progress. There was one 172-mile stretch with no gradient to worry about and no bridges at all.
When the Railway Lines Met
Finally, the two lines, one of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, moving east from Sacramento, California, and the other of the Union Pacific Railroad, moving west from Omaha, Nebraska, met at Promontory Point, Utah. This is a place north of Salt Lake City. On May 10, 1869, Leland Stanford of the Central Pacific drove in the golden spike—the very last spike that completed this continuous line across the whole country.
Instantly, transcontinental travel times diminished dramatically. Until then, the way to get across the continent was on the Oregon Trail, which often took three months, even if things went relatively well. Suddenly, it was less than a week, and travel times continued to dwindle with technical improvements to the railway in the succeeding decades.
The Issue of Snow
As mentioned earlier, another of the great problems across the Great Plains, as well as in the mountains, was with snow. With the very earliest railroads, the trains simply just carried a lot of shovels, and whenever they met snow, all the men in the train were asked to get out and shovel.
Later, they were replaced with things called ‘bucker plows’. A bucker plow was an immense blade as tall as a locomotive, and often pushed by 10 or 12 locomotives to give an enormous impact, enormous force to the push it made against a snow bank. It was a macho thing to be the snowplow driver, and the drivers were proud of their ability.
From Shovel to Rotary Snowplow
A very important invention came in 1884, with the invention of the rotary snowplow. This was developed by a man named Orange Jull, a Canadian.
The great thing about the rotary snowplow was that it looked like an enormous aircraft propeller in a frame borne in front of the locomotive. It was itself powered so that it rotated very fast, and it could chew its way into a snow bank, powder it, and throw the snow to one side, so that rather than relying on sheer momentum, that is, bashing the snow out of the way, it could gradually eat its way through the snow.
This is a device that continues to be used even today in the Plains and mountains and in the Alaskan railroads, where snowfall is very heavy.
Common Questions about America’s First Transcontinental Railroad
In areas of very heavy snowfall and in areas where the railway line crossed an avalanche track, the railway builders had to build heavy timber sheds over the track to keep the track free from snow. These were called snow sheds. These sheds couldn’t be too long because if they were, fumes from the locomotive would asphyxiate the driver.
The two lines, one of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, moving east from Sacramento, California, and the other of the Union Pacific Railroad, moving west from Omaha, Nebraska, met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869.
A bucker plow was an immense blade as tall as a locomotive, and often pushed by 10 or 12 locomotives to give an enormous force to the push it made against a snow bank.