Transcontinental Railroad: How It Changed American Lives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

The making of the transcontinental railroad was an unprecedented success story of its time. Between the companies engaged in completing the project, there was intense competition to gain maximum mileage, and this added spice to the whole action. Making their way through the treacherous terrains was a big challenge.

Central Pacific Railroad construction of the upper slope of the Prospect Hill Cut in 1867.
During the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad, Chinese railroad workers reshaped the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

In the year 1869, two landmarks were achieved that were instrumental in binding the world together. One was the opening of the Suez Canal. But just six months before that another landmark had been achieved. The first transcontinental railroad of the United States had been completed. This transcontinental railroad joined the North American continent in a way that had never been done before. Before this, if a fearless Yankee wanted to go to California, he had to travel around South America for six months and had to encounter the rough seas found at Cape Horn. As an alternative, he could cross Panama by land, but here again, he had to face the prospect of encountering tropical diseases and later would have to get into a ship to move northward.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Idea of Linking North America

A portrait of Theodore D. Judah, Chief Engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad Company of California.
Theodore Judah was so obsessed with his vision of a transcontinental railroad that people nicknamed him “Crazy Judah”. (Image: Carleton Watkins / Public domain)

The dream of linking North America by the railroad was launched by a young engineer named Theodore Judah. He was so obsessed with his vision that people nicknamed him “Crazy Judah”. However, unfortunately, he was not alive when his dream project was completed. Some of his peers said that it would be impossible to build the transcontinental railroad. It would be like building a railroad to the moon. But Judah did not care. He designed the route of this transcontinental railroad passing through the intimidating Sierra Nevada mountains. Although the American Civil War was going on, he was able to convince President Abraham Lincoln about the idea. Or it can be said that it was just because of the Civil War that he was able to convince the president. If this route to California was built then the west would be more tightly connected to the union. So, the Pacific railroad act was signed by President Lincoln in 1862.

Once the order was signed, there ensued a serious economic and engineering competition between the companies who were rivals and yet were cooperating with each other. While from the western side the Central Pacific Railroad Company worked toward the east, the United Pacific Railroad Company worked from the Missouri River toward the west. The law was that the companies would be paid for the miles of track they laid for the transcontinental railroad and the companies were also given the land on both sides of the railways. They obviously tried to maximize their share by working speedily or any other means possible.

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Construction of the Transcontinental Railroad

The construction of this transcontinental railroad faced many big hurdles. There were dangerous landscapes, snows on the Sierra mountains, and raids by those Native American tribes in whose territories the workers entered. While his dream project was underway, enterprising engineer Judah died of a disease and was unable to see his dream come true.

However, a large number of men kept on working on the transcontinental railroad project. Their number was tens of thousands and they came from diverse areas. These included the civil war veterans from both sides, African Americans, Irish immigrants, and an increasing number of Chinese immigrants who were largely mistreated. These men worked on all seven days of the week and more often than not for 14 hours every day. This pattern moved across the continent.

At the front were the surveyors, who mapped the route. They were followed by graders who leveled the hurdles and prepared the ground for the laying of railway tracks. After that, the Chinese workers were employed for the dangerous work of handling nitroglycerin that was used to blast the barriers in the way. This was followed by moving the layers of tracks up and setting the iron road on its course. The work moved at a breakneck speed and in fact, at the end of it, a record was set by laying 10 miles and 56 feet of road in just 12 hours.

This is a picture of the Summit Station at Sierra Nevada.
Many wild and rough settlements cropped up on the route of the transcontinental railroad. (Image: Carleton Watkins/Public domain)

Herds of cattle and cooks, as well as dormitories on wheels, followed workers. The dormitories were for sleeping. It was not surprising that many wild and rough settlements cropped up on the route of the transcontinental railroad to satisfy the appetites and lusts of the workers. These were called “Hells on Wheels”. These towns included North Platte and Julesburg, Nebraska.

How bitter the rivalry was between the companies building the transcontinental railroad can be gauged by the fact that when their advance parties met, they just passed by each other. The reason was obvious. None of them wanted to lose out on the advantage of building more miles. In fact, there are stories that say that some of the units of these companies actually fought with each other.

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The Completion

Ultimately, after much squabbling and getting an ultimatum from President Grant to complete it, the companies met at Promontory Summit in Utah. The transcontinental railroad was finally joined on 10th May 1869. The occasion was very rough and revealing. One dignitary, a financier named Mr. Durant, who had come from the east, was late because he was held hostage by some of his employees due to some labor dispute. When he eventually arrived, huge locomotives were drawn up on both sides as the last spike was to be driven in. This spike was made of solid gold and had these words engraved on it, “May God continue the unity of our country as this Railroad unites the two Great Oceans of the World.”

This gold spike was immediately taken out and an iron spike replaced it. The gold spike is preserved at Stanford University. The spike and hammer were connected to a telegraph line by a wire, that conveyed to the world, at lightning speed, the news of joining of the continents.

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Common Questions About the Transcontinental Railroad

Q: How was the transcontinental railroad important?

The transcontinental railroad connected eastern America with western America thus making long-distance travel easy for the people and the delivery of mail faster.

Q: What was the route of the transcontinental railroad?

The first transcontinental railroad originated from Sacramento in California and terminated at Council Bluffs in Iowa.

Q: Where is the golden spike kept now?

The golden spike is now kept at the Cantor Arts Museum at Stanford University.

Q: What was the most notable effect of the transcontinental railroad?

The most notable effect of the transcontinental railroad was that it reduced the traveling time between New York and California from about 6 months to just about a week and the cost to about one-sixth. This meant the growth of new business and job opportunities.

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